More than a third of Colorado high school graduates need extra help to do college work

More than a third of Colorado students who graduated from high school in 2017 were flagged as needing additional help in reading or math to do college-level work.

This number has barely budged in the 17 years that the Colorado Department of Higher Education has reported on developmental education needs, previously known as remediation, and it’s long been used to point a finger of blame at the state’s high schools for not adequately preparing their graduates.

The 2019 developmental education report released Monday tracks the academic course of 2017 high school graduates who enrolled in higher ed institutions in Colorado. About 35% of that group was placed in developmental education. That’s slightly less than last year but slightly more than in 2013 or 2014.

Students identified as needing developmental education, usually through a placement test, must take basic courses in English or math before they can enroll in introductory college-level classes. Those courses cost students money but don’t earn them credits toward graduation. These students are more likely to not finish college at all and more likely to earn certificates and associate degrees rather than complete four-year programs. And students of color, students from low-income families, and women are all more likely to be assessed as needing developmental education.

So the stakes are high.

But researchers and Colorado’s higher ed officials increasingly question whether placement tests accurately reflect students’ ability to handle college material. Going forward, institutions of higher learning are strongly encouraged to use multiple measures, including high school grades, to place students in the correct courses. Under legislation passed this spring, higher education institutions are also required to transition away from traditional development education or remediation to what’s known as supplemental academic instruction.

In this model, students take an additional lab or receive tutoring alongside an intro-level college course, getting the support they need while still earning credit. In the Colorado Community College system, English pass rates increased from 36 percent to 74 percent and math pass rates increased from 16 percent to 40 percent when students used supplemental instruction instead of taking remedial English or math.

“Students can do a lot more than we think that they can a lot of times,” said Katie Zaback, a senior policy director for the higher ed department. “And when they challenge themselves and go into a college-level course, they oftentimes perform better than we expected them to do.”

That calls into question the traditional interpretation of Colorado’s developmental education statistics. Instead, test anxiety, biases baked into the test design, and stereotype threat, a phenomenon in which students who belong to groups that aren’t expected to do as well academically do worse than they should on standardized tests, might be exacerbating racial and gender gaps in who gets identified for developmental ed.

Higher-income black students are more likely to be identified for developmental education than lower-income white and Asian students, and higher-income Hispanic students are equally likely to be identified. Women are also more likely than men to be identified as needing developmental ed.

State higher ed officials said they want to move away from the “blame game” and make sure that as many students as possible maximize their chances for success in pursuing a degree. New high school graduation requirements should better align with the demands of college coursework, and the expansion of concurrent enrollment, through which high school students get access to college-level courses, should help more students feel prepared. The goal of the developmental education report is to help school districts and higher ed institutions understand where gaps remain, they said.

This year’s report includes several methodological changes from previous years. Instead of counting students who enrolled in either the fall or spring after high school graduation, it only counts students who enrolled in the fall. That’s to ensure consistency with other statistics the department tracks.

The report also only counts students who were assessed as needing developmental ed or enrolled in a development education course. Past reports counted students who enrolled in supplemental academic instruction. However, more students who were never flagged as needing extra help are nonetheless taking advantage of those opportunities, making enrollment in supplemental instruction a less meaningful measure.

Historical figures in this year’s report have all been adjusted to allow for apples-to-apples comparisons, but the 2019 report won’t quite align with past reports.

One number that officials are watching: The number of students identified as needing developmental education who don’t take that course during their first year of college. State policy has been to strongly encourage students to get these courses out of the way early so that they don’t pose a barrier to graduation. But the number of students doing so has dropped from 65% in 2009 to 49% for the class of 2017.

This could be bad, with students putting off coursework that will be essential to graduating. Or it could be good, if more of these students are taking advantage of supplemental instruction and passing their intro-level courses without the detour through catch-up classes.

State higher ed officials said they may need to track different types of data going forward to see how well Colorado students are faring under this new system.

Read the full report and look up your district here.