How the Effects of Postsecondary Remedial and Developmental Courses Vary by Level of Academic Preparation

How the Effects of Postsecondary Remedial and Developmental Courses Vary by Level of Academic Participation

National Center for Postsecondary Research

This report summarizes recent research that addresses the impact of remedial and developmental courses on students with a range of levels of preparedness. Researchers used longitudinal data from Tennessee to estimate the effects of placement on students attending two- and four-year colleges and universities into  varying levels of math, reading and writing courses. Tennessee has a multi-tiered system in which students – based on their scores on the COMPASS placement test—can be assigned into one of four levels of math courses and one of three levels of reading and writing courses.

In the fall of 2000, there were nine public universities, two special purpose institutes, 13 two-year institutions and 27 technology centers that served about 200,000 students in Tennessee. Researchers observed students term-by-term from fall 2000 to spring 2003 (a total of three school years) and then eventual degree completion after six years.  (Additional data has been requested to continue the analysis.) The sample is restricted to undergraduates beginning at a public two or four-year college in Tennessee in fall 2000 who also took a COMPASS exam in math, writing or reading.

Results from the study show that remedial and developmental courses produce different outcomes for students based on their level of preparedness. For students with higher abilities who are placed in the upper-level developmental math course, rather than the college-level course, the placement seems to have negative effects on their long-term college persistence and degree completion. For students who are in the middle of the math distribution and are assigned to the lower-level developmental course, rather than the upper-level course, the placement appears to make no statistically significant difference in students’ degree completion and persistence rates. For students on the lower-level of math preparedness, the effects of being placed in a lower-level course were small.

When it comes to reading, students assigned to the developmental course earned seven fewer college-level credits by the end of their third year than their peers who were assigned directly to the college-level course. Despite this, assignment to the developmental course is shown to have only a slightly negative effect on degree completion within six years. Placement in the lower end developmental course had an effect only on the number of college-level credits a student completed by their third year, and on eventual degree completion at the two-year institutions.

Similar to math, the magnitude of reading effects are smaller at the lower end of the academic spectrum than at the higher end.

For writing, students at the top part of preparedness experienced negative effects for placement in the developmental course rather than in the college-level course. However, there are positive effects for students placed in the lowest level remedial writing course, in comparison to the next highest course. At the end of the third year, students assigned to remedial writing earned four more total credits and only about 0.4 fewer college credits than their peers assigned to the developmental writing course.

Researchers found that their analysis showed that the effects of remediation are far more nuanced than previously thought. Recent research has turned back mixed, and mostly negative, estimates about the effects of developmental courses, but, until this study, analysis has been limited to students needing only one or two courses. This study showed that the effects of providing below-college-level courses vary according to the students’ level of preparedness.

For the full, free 49-page report click here.


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