Turning Intake on Its Head: Revisiting Principle 1 of the Core Principles for Transforming Remedial Education

Published apr. 05, 2016

The first of the Core Principles states: Every student’s postsecondary education begins with an intake process to choose an academic direction and identify the support needed to pass relevant credit-bearing gateway courses in the first-year.

This dry, bureaucratic statement conceals a call for radical transformation of the entire intake and advisement process at community colleges across the nation. Historically, the intake process was designed to weed out students deemed “not ready” for college-level work. Such students were directed into developmental education courses that could take anywhere from one to six semesters to complete, were not credit-bearing, and didn’t advance students toward a credential. Perhaps more important, students in developmental education were not viewed as “real” college students until they had completed the entire developmental education course sequence, an outcome that remains elusive for the majority of such students. The first Core Principle reimagines this process in three ways: intake procedures are redesigned to bring students into college-level programs of study, rather than to exclude them based on their academic deficits; assessments are redesigned to evaluate students’ skills and abilities holistically and identify the supports students need to achieve their goals; and academic supports are contextualized within students’ chosen programs of study. 

No More Cut Scores 

In order to create an intake procedure that is designed to help students choose an academic direction, colleges must radically revise their intake assessments, replacing standardized tests with multiple measures assessments.  

Although standardized tests are weakly associated with college completion, they are used almost exclusively to assess student readiness upon enrollment in community college. Moreover, standardized tests over-place students into developmental education: thirty percent of students who were placed in developmental education could have earned a B or better in a college-level course.

The Core Principles call on colleges to invest in multidimensional, multiple measures assessments that provide a holistic view of where students are able to perform and where they might need support. Researchers at the Community College Research Center found that use of multiple measures, including grade point average, improves placement accuracy and decreases the likelihood of under-placing students.

Replacing high-stakes assessments with multiple measures assessment is only a part of the shift that needs to happen. Assessments must measure not only where students have deficits, but also where their strengths and interests lie. Such assessments help students explore academic and career directions. As a next step, a student’s need for developmental education is assessed against the academic requirements of the student’s selected program of study. 

Structured Pathways and Advising 

The shift to helping students to determine an academic direction or career goal is inextricably linked to having a set of clearly mapped structured credential programs for students to pursue and a modernized approach to advising that takes into account students’ needs both inside and outside of school. 

The new majority of college students work and must juggle multiple obligations while pursuing their studies. These students need supports to successfully balance their education with their responsibilities to family and work. Clear program maps can decrease the time advisors spend helping students select classes and allow advisors to devote more time to supporting students to explore and select college programs of study that are aligned with their education and career goals. 

This is a tall order. Advisors need professional development opportunities to enable them to help students make smart choices about their majors with a clear understanding of the related implications for employment, family-supporting wages, and career advancement. For example, recent studies from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce have shown that black and Latino college students disproportionately choose majors that result in low-paying jobs after graduation. Researchers found that these choices were shaped both by students’ lack of familiarity with high-paying professions and by the limited advising available at the public access institutions that disproportionately serve minority and low-income students. These findings underscore the direct link between advising and economic mobility. With enhanced professional development, advisors can help low-income and first-generation students better understand the long-term implications of different programs of study, the academic preparation necessary to succeed in their chosen programs of study, and the work-related experiences that are important to being successful in the labor market. 

This modernized notion of advising has implications for human, technological, and financial capacity. Shifting to an emphasis on advising usually requires hiring new advisors. Increasing advising staff is costly, but this shift creates an opportunity to rethink how human resources are deployed across the community college enterprise. To address cost, institutions should consider implementing models that integrate human advisors with e-advising systems. 

Making School Meaningful 

Finally, the Core Principles call for remedial supports to be contextualized—in plain English, relevant—to students’ selected programs of study. A growing body of research suggests that students who are engaged in college-level content that is directly applicable to their education and career goals are more likely to complete college. Contextualization is a sharp contrast to the historical approach of remedial education that teaches general basic skills, often through rote memorization and drills, without any connection to the type of content that a student would find in his or her selected program of study. 

Contextualized models, however, require significant institutional changes such as integrating developmental education and academic disciplines, which requires rethinking the roles of developmental educators and discipline-based faculty. Despite challenges, there has been important progress in contextualizing developmental mathematics with college-level programs of study through reform initiatives such as Quantway/Statway and New Mathways. These initiatives contextualize developmental math according to a student’s college program path. For example, students who are in non-STEM programs of study are placed in college-level statistics or quantitative reasoning gateway courses instead of being required to take an algebra-based course sequence, which was historically required of all students who placed into developmental math. The preliminary results of these initiatives are promising. The Quantway and Statway initiatives have produced triple the developmental education success rates in half the time.

Turning the community college intake system on its head requires a categorically new way of thinking about remediation. It dramatically shifts from using high stakes assessments to screen students out of college to using holistic assessments to screen students into programs of study that are aligned with their academic and career goals. Academic and non-academic supports are assessed in light of what students need to be successful in their selected programs of study. In this modernized approach to developmental education, two foundational elements of traditional developmental education—high stakes tests and decontextualized basic skills—are eliminated and relegated to the past. 

The Core Principles call for the integration of the structured pathways approach with best practices for developmental education argue that this integration is essential if we are to create economic mobility for large numbers of poor and minority students. 

This is the second in a series by Michael Collins. To read the third blog in this series, please click here
Read his statement on the release of the Core Principles.