Wednesday, November 02, 2016


Going “Full Florida”

What if students had the option of skipping remediation entirely?

The state of Florida has been conducting a forced experiment to answer that.  The legislature passed a law declaring that most incoming community college students could decide to bypass remedial classes even if their placement test scores indicated that they needed them.  The idea was that remedial coursework often does as much harm as good, in terms of getting students to graduation, and that it consumes significant amounts of their financial aid.  (That took on a new urgency in 2012, when the Feds tightened the lifetime limit for receiving Pell grants.)  Rather than trying to reform developmental ed, it decided to cut the Gordian knot and simply stop requiring it.  Students are given the option of taking it or not.

According to a report in the Sun-Sentinel, enrollments in developmental courses dropped by about half.  Pass rates in first-level college classes either dropped slightly or held steady, but the rates are based on larger populations; even with a slight drop in the rate, the percentage of students who eventually pass a college-level class is higher.  

That finding fits both with intuition and with anecdotal reports I got from some of my colleagues from Florida at Aspen.  They also mentioned that pass rates in developmental classes increased significantly, theorizing that it was because the students who chose it actually wanted it.  

A few years ago, when I was at Holyoke, we did a very limited version of the Florida experiment.  Students with high school GPA’s in a given range -- I’m thinking 2.3 to 2.7ish, but I don’t remember exactly -- were given the option of taking developmental math or not.  About half chose each way.  The ones who chose not to did just as well in 100-level math as students who placed in directly; the ones who chose remediation did just as well, or slightly better, in remedial classes as those who were mandated.  The results weren’t overwhelming, but they were positive, and they suggested that some epistemological humility about predicting student performance from the outside is probably in order.  And that’s with using GPA, as opposed to Accuplacer; I have no confidence that Accuplacer is terribly accurate when used as most colleges use it.

Having spent nearly a decade as a chief academic officer at two different community colleges, I’m increasingly sympathetic to going Full Florida.  There’s something fundamentally broken about developmental education as it’s currently done, and placement has a lot to do with it.  Forcing students who have had bad experiences in a given subject to start by re-taking material they’ve had before, on their own dime, with no credit towards graduation, is a motivation-killer.  And it’s based on a theory of knowledge that I don’t think holds water.

It assumes that students can only learn material in one order.  It assumes that material progresses linearly, and that students have to go step-by-step to make progress.

I’m just not sure that’s true.

Take languages.  It’s possible to teach a language in a linear way, but that’s not how people best learn them.  They learn languages by being thrown in the deep end and flailing around a while.  Anyone who raised children can tell you that their learning is much more idiosyncratic than linear.  Yes, that can lead to gaps, but gaps can be filled.  And the fastest way to shut down a kid’s interest is to reduce it to workbooks.

Adults aren’t just taller children, but the same principle applies.  When I get a new gadget -- and I do love my gadgets -- I never, never, never read the instructions front to back.  I look for the specific points I need.  If later I realize that I missed something, I find it.  Students are often the same way.  We’ve been essentially forcing them to read the manual, then wondering why they lose interest.

I was actually encouraged at Holyoke when about half of the students given the option of skipping chose not to, and encouraged again to see that the same held true in Florida.  Some students know that they’re lost, and actually want the help.  As any teacher can tell you, when a student actually wants to learn, you’re halfway home.  Kay McClenney’s well-known admonition that “students don’t do optional” isn’t always entirely true.  They do when they know they need it.  

I don’t have a habit of thanking Floridian politicians for their wisdom, but credit where credit is due.  The rest of us should take a long, hard look at going Full Florida.

We are in the midst of placement and developmental redesign, a more cautious approach when our developmental classes start cover a wide range of abilities.

I would love to hear from more Florida community college faculty than the sole faculty member interviewed in the report you linked to (one prof, who warned of faculty burn out, without explanation). The report suggests that at least for math, one reason for student success is that students actually under place themselves which seems to defeat the purpose of "acceleration". And as for writing, I'm curious how the additional supports work: is tutoring or a lab required, or are they optional? Any Floridians who can weigh in?
A colleague just reminded me of this IHE piece from last year that was much less optimistic about the Full Florida plan:

You made some great points. Particularly about Accuplacer. I had to take it due to my low math SAT score and somehow got placed in Calculus. Thankfully, I only had to take stats but I worried about it until the course came because math and I are not friends. We have never been friends for lots and lots of reasons. All that said, I passed stats with a high B. The professor later told my mom (who is the Registrar there) that I probably should've gotten an A. The B was already the highest math grade I'd ever gotten. I also think that considering what math classes a program actually needs is important. For my social work-esque program, we really only need stats. No other math makes sense. And even though I know I've used some of the stuff I learned in 10th grade geometry, I've yet to use about 90% of the things I was tested on.
Full Florida should be colleges' second choice.

You hit the nail on the head when you said that remedial education doesn't fit with how people learn. Colleges' first choice, which many groups are working on, should be to reform remedial content - teach students skills that they need in a way that connects to the real world. There is research on remedial math courses that shows (a) community college students remember contextualized and "connected" math way better than traditional algebraic equation-solving, and (b) that doing algebra alone doesn't help students do better in college-level math. (Full disclosure, this is my own research.) The more colleges can redefine "remedial" skills to be meaningful skills, the more students will learn and the better off they'll be in college-level classes.

There are a significant number of people who need the basic math, reading, and writing skills that college-level classes don't teach. This is especially true in math - a precalculus class isn't going to help you learn how to handle your finances. There are "avoidance" reforms like Florida's, and content-based reforms that make sure students are learning useful skills, which is why we're here in the first place.
I don't know why you deleted my post, but the main point was important enough to repeat: The Florida rule, created by one person amending a bill during the last minutes of a legislative session, forbids placement testing of graduates of Florida PUBLIC high schools. Those students are deemed "college ready" by virtue of passing the 10th grade assessments required for a regular diploma. Those with a GED or graduating from a private school or coming in from out of state are still required to take the placement test and required to complete remediation if so indicated.

Sadly, the result is that there are no data concerning the correlation between placement scores and performance in a variety of entry-level classes. Attempts to correct this, requiring placement testing but forbidding its use for placement of public HS grads, have failed.

Those considering going Full Florida in a state that has well-established graduation exams in public and charter schools should consider adopting this policy while still requiring placement exams for use in advising and research.
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