The Opposing Forces That Shape Developmental Education: Assessment, Placement, and Progression at CUNY Community Colleges
The developmental education process, as it is typically implemented in colleges across the country, seems straightforward: underprepared students are assessed and placed into an appropriate developmental course sequence designed to prepare them for college-level work; once finished with the sequence, these students presumably then move on to success in college. Analyses of student progression through developmental education reveal, however, that this seemingly straightforward process is rife with complexity and confusion, and results in poor outcomes for the majority of developmental students. Various explanations have been advanced to explain developmental students’ lack of progression, including inadequate test preparation, insufficiently predictive exams, poorly aligned curricula, uninspiring skill-and-drill instruction, and the sheer length of time and financial resources required to finish a long sequence of courses (Edgecombe, 2011a; Grubb, 2010; Hughes and Scott-Clayton, 2011). Each explanation implies that the developmental system is broken and that one or more specific fixes will mend it. Yet underlying these issues is a deeper and more vexing question: Why is the system broken? Based on a case study of the City University of New York’s six community colleges, this report proposes a new opposing forces framework for understanding the dysfunction of the developmental system. We identify three sets of opposing forces that shape developmental policy and practice: system-wide consistency versus institutional autonomy, efficient versus effective assessment, and promotion of student progression versus enforcement of academic standards. Within each set, both goals are important and worthy, both are championed by key stakeholders in the system, and both have direct impacts on developmental policy. However, while the two goals may not be absolutely irreconcilable, they tend to work in opposition to one another and may create frustration on the part of administrators and faculty, confusion on the part of students, and poor outcomes overall. We begin the report by outlining the opposing forces framework and by discussing how the tensions inherent in the framework are apparent at the national level. We then use CUNY as a case study to describe in detail how each of the three tensions shape developmental policies, practices, and student progression patterns. Finally, we provide suggestions on how colleges nationwide can bring apparently opposing forces into alignment and thus create a system that works to meet all its stakeholders’ goals.
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