Wednesday, June 12, 2013

 

What To Do In Denver When You’re Developmental

The Denver public school district is adopting a new plan to ensure that its graduates don’t place into developmental coursework when they get to college.  The plan is to teach the developmental coursework in high school.

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A few thoughts:

As a very short-term measure, this has its merits.  The initial cohort is taking the coursework in the summer before they start college.  For students who are behind, making academically productive use of summer makes sense.  If they can get on track by the Fall, they can progress to the degree without undue delay.  And to the extent that the developmental courses are paid for by the school district, rather than the students, the students can save their financial aid for college-level work.  This is clearly to the good.

But as a long-term measure, it only makes sense as a small component of a much larger plan.

According to the article in the Denver Post, placement into developmental courses is determined by scores on the SAT, ACT, or Accuplacer.  It goes on to mention a student who graduated high school with a 3.1 GPA, but who placed into developmental classes at the University of Colorado - Pueblo.

Where to begin?

First, the predictive validity of any single standardized test, taken once, is markedly low.  The CCRC has produced studies strongly encouraging “multi-factor” placement, so that we don’t sentence students to months or even years of coursework that they don’t really need.  High school GPA has been shown to improve the accuracy of placements significantly when taken in combination with test scores.  Screening out the “false negatives” is an easy, low-cost way to reduce barriers.

Second, to the extent that the tests are valid, I’d be concerned that students with better-than-B averages are placing developmental.  That strongly suggests a serious issue at the high school level in curriculum, instruction, or both.  Maybe they’re grading too easily, maybe they’re doing drill-and-kill instruction that doesn’t stick, or maybe they’re simply teaching topics other than the topics the college tests.  (It could also be a combination of the above.)  If Colorado doesn’t require four years of math in high school, I’d absolutely start with that.  To let students stop taking math after sophomore year, and then complain about having to teach developmental classes, is just a massive system failure.  

Third, re-teaching things that didn’t work the first time, in the same place, and in much the same way, isn’t likely to get dramatically different results.  If you want to improve students’ college preparation -- a worthy goal -- you have to be willing to get a little more radical.  This is the group with which to try project-based learning, self-paced modules, or whatever else might grab them.  The one thing you don’t do is exactly what you’ve done before.

Still, it’s encouraging to see that they’re at least starting to address the question.  It’s the right question, even if I’m not sold on the answer.  Good luck, Denver.  I hope this is just the first step of several.

Comments:
Our local school system does something like that (it is actually a tracked "4th year" math class) for seniors who pass the state graduation exam for math but cannot place into college-level math. Sometimes the problem is as simple as being freaked out about having to do basic arithmetic without a calculator, and there is some evidence that this can be fixed by teachers they already know and trust.

"Second, to the extent that the tests are valid, I’d be concerned that students with better-than-B averages are placing developmental. That strongly suggests a serious issue at the high school level in curriculum, instruction, or both."

We all are, but don't leave out HS management. If you are not allowed to fail more than a tiny fraction of the students in a class and keep your job, teachers will find all manner of double secret extra credit to make sure they pass. The GPA may only tell you how the grades were curved, not what the student knows.

I don't have to tell you that older faculty like myself are very concerned that the "consumer" CC student will end up with similarly meaningless assessments of their learning by faculty concerned for their jobs.

Also remember that the GPA is for all classes, while the developmental placement is quite likely to be for math alone, and that the name of a math class does not always indicate the content level tested on the exams.

"Maybe they’re grading too easily, maybe they’re doing drill-and-kill instruction that doesn’t stick, or maybe they’re simply teaching topics other than the topics the college tests. "

They have been grading too easily. Everyone gets a trophy.

But the main problem appears to be that they don't reach the topics covered on the college tests because the minimum math requirement to graduate HS is well below that required to take a college-level math class. That is clearly the case in my state.

As one example, we know that the math topics covered in a specific HS algebra classes align quite well with those in the comparable college-level class. We also know that students who take four years of math in HS don't have to take that specific (normally 10th or 11th grade) class to graduate.

But it's also true that it doesn't stick. This may be a natural result of training them to cram for a high stakes test practically every year, and perhaps that they can start actively forgetting math as soon as they pass that test a year or more before they graduate.
 
DD, I loved this paragraph:

Third, re-teaching things that didn’t work the first time, in the same place, and in much the same way, isn’t likely to get dramatically different results. If you want to improve students’ college preparation -- a worthy goal -- you have to be willing to get a little more radical. This is the group with which to try project-based learning, self-paced modules, or whatever else might grab them. The one thing you don’t do is exactly what you’ve done before.
>>>>>
I'm hopeful that you've then encouraged (required?) all of your math teachers to not do the lecture/drill thing in their classes!

I mean, from what I can tell, 95% of math teachers everywhere organize class the exact same way:

1) homework check/questions
2) Present 2 examples of an algorithm
3) expect students to do some examples in class
4) Assign a bunch of examples for outside of class.

Do tell, what do you do to support instructors in doing something different?

 
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