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.


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.