Diversity and Democracy

Transforming Remediation: An Essential Part of Campus Equity Efforts

During faculty workshops, we often ask people to raise their hands if their institutions are taking certain steps to address equity. Their responses follow a predictable pattern. Are they examining data on student outcomes, disaggregated by race and ethnicity, and offering support for students in underrepresented groups? A lot of hands go up. Providing faculty development opportunities in culturally responsive pedagogy and shifting from deficit- to asset-based approaches? Still several hands, but fewer. Prioritizing diversity in hiring? Fewer still. And how many institutions are working to identify how their own structures are producing inequities, and then changing those structures? Very few hands, and uncertain expressions around the room.

In the California Acceleration Project (CAP), we help faculty understand that the policies and curricula that higher education has developed to help students who are considered “underprepared” are actually making these students less likely to succeed in college—and further, that students of color are bearing the brunt of the unintended consequences. National research shows that

  • the standardized tests that colleges use to determine who is and is not “college ready” are being increasingly discredited as poor predictors of student capacity (Belfield and Crosta 2012);
  • students of color are disproportionately placed in multiple semesters of remediation based upon these tests (Witham et al. 2015);
  • with each layer of remediation, students become less likely to complete college-level courses and make progress toward a degree or transfer (Bailey, Jeong, and Cho 2009);
  • reforms that enable students to avoid or accelerate remediation are producing large gains in completion of college-level courses and narrowing achievement gaps for students of color (e.g., Coleman 2015).

CAP is a faculty-to-faculty professional development network focused on transforming remediation in community colleges, where the above problems are most acute. CAP helps colleges increase student completion of transferable gateway courses in English and math, which are critical to building students’ momentum toward longer-term goals.

Rethinking Placement

Three-quarters of California community college students are placed in remedial courses in English, reading, math, and/or English as a Second Language, and their long-term outcomes are bleak. Statewide, just 40 percent of students placed in remediation go on to complete a degree, certificate, or transfer within six years, compared to 70 percent of those classified as “college ready” (California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office 2015).

How can we increase completion among students placed in remediation? One approach is simple: let more of them enroll in college-level courses.

Consider the experience of Butte College. In 2011, when Butte switched from one placement test to another, faculty were surprised to find that twice as many students were suddenly “college ready.” Placement into college English rose from 23 percent to 48 percent of incoming students, and some feared that the change would result in large-scale student failure. But completion increased for all students, with students of color seeing the biggest gains.

At Butte, three times as many African American students completed college English in one year under the new policy, and twice as many Hispanic and Asian students. The completion gap between African American and white students was cut nearly in half. Further, among students who previously would have placed into remediation, 40 percent earned As and Bs in the college-level course, attesting to how much their capacity had been underestimated (Henson and Hern 2014).

Redesigning Curricula

In addition to helping educators rethink placement, CAP supports college faculty in redesigning their curricula. Sixty-one community colleges are now offering accelerated pathways that reduce students’ time in remediation and offer high-challenge, high-support instruction.

Following CAP design principles, students grapple with open-ended, relevant issues and faculty support their success with collaborative pedagogy and strategies for addressing the affective dimensions of learning, providing just-in-time remediation as needed. In math, remediation aligns with the college-level courses students take for their programs of study—algebra pathways for students heading into calculus (STEM and business majors), statistics pathways for most other students (Hern and Snell 2013).

The pre-statistics course at College of the Canyons (COC) is a good example. In traditional remediation, students review the standard list of Algebra I topics; here, they work in teams to conduct exploratory analysis with real-world data sets. In one project, students analyze auto safety ratings to create policy recommendations for an insurance company, applying statistical tools and creating posters that support their recommendations with text and graphs. To help students persist with this high level of challenge, faculty assign regular activities on the affective domain, such as writing self-reflections after watching a TED talk on grit or discussing an article about letting learners struggle.

One of the first colleges to implement accelerated curricula with CAP, COC now offers the largest statistics pathway in California, serving thirteen hundred students a year. In addition to sending faculty to the CAP professional development program, the college has trained more than forty math faculty through its own local program. The results have been amazing, especially for students of color. Students in the statistics pathway are nearly three times as likely to complete a college-level math course within two years as students in traditional math remediation. For African American students, completion of college math is more than six times higher (Brezina et al., forthcoming).

Acceleration is now a way of life in both English and math at COC. The college has eliminated the lowest remedial levels of both subjects and changed placement policies so that students start higher in the sequences. As positive results come in, faculty and administrators are inspired to seek additional ways to accelerate students.

Accelerating Results

The gains described above are typical of CAP pathways statewide. The Research and Planning Group studied the first sixteen community colleges offering accelerated pathways with CAP, controlling for thirteen variables that influence completion (e.g., race, income, GPA, placement level). They found that students’ odds of completing college English were 2.3 times higher in effective accelerated pathways than in traditional remediation, and 4.5 times higher in accelerated statistics pathways. Further, every subgroup they examined had better results in the redesigned pathways (Hayward and Willett 2014). In a follow-up analysis of disaggregated descriptive data, the researchers found that achievement gaps for African American students were eliminated in CAP statistics pathways at eight colleges (Hayward and Willett 2015).

These examples from California make clear that increasing equity requires colleges to change placement and remediation structures for incoming students. Under traditional approaches, students of color start college at a structural disadvantage, disproportionately placed into multiple remedial courses. Acceleration strategies flatten these structures, enabling all students to progress more rapidly into meaningful college-level coursework, narrowing achievement gaps, and revealing the deep student capacity that had been there all along.

For more information, visit http://cap.3csn.org.


Bailey, Thomas, Dong Wook Jeong, and Sung-Woo Cho. 2009. “Referral, Enrollment, and Completion in Developmental Education Sequences in Community Colleges.” CCRC Working Paper No. 15, revised. New York: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University. http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/publications/referral-enrollment-completion-developmental-education.html.

Belfield, Clive, and Peter M. Crosta. 2012. “Predicting Success in College: The Importance of Placement Tests and High School Grades.” CCRC Working Paper No. 42. New York: Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University. http://ccrc.tc.columbia.edu/publications/predicting-success-placement-tests-transcripts.html.

Brezina, Jennifer, with Catherine Parker, Daylene M. Meuschke, and Barry C. Gribbons. Forthcoming. “Math 075 Success and Progression Analysis” (internal report). Santa Clarita, CA: College of the Canyons.

California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. 2015. “Student Success Scorecard, Statewide.” http://scorecard.cccco.edu/scorecardrates.aspx?CollegeID=000.

Coleman, Dawn. 2015. Replicating the Accelerated Learning Program: An Update. Charlotte, NC: Center for Applied Research. http://alp-deved.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/ALP-Replication-Study-2015-Final.pdf.

Hayward, Craig, and Terrence Willett. 2014. Curricular Redesign and Gatekeeper Completion: A Multi-College Evaluation of the California Acceleration Project. Berkeley, CA: The Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges. http://www.rpgroup.org/projects/cap.

———. 2015. “Equity Implications of the California Acceleration Project: Capturing Data through Deliberate Design.” Presentation at the Research and Planning Group Annual Conference, Sacramento, CA. http://rpgroup.org/resources/equity-implications-california-acceleration-project-capturing-impact-through-deliberate-de.

Henson, Leslie, and Katie Hern. 2014. “Let Them In: Increasing Access, Completion, and Equity in College English.” Perspectives (November/December). Berkeley, CA: The Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges. http://cap.3csn.org/2014/12/01/the-promise-of-broadening-access-to-college-level-english/.

Hern, Katie, with Myra Snell. 2013. Toward a Vision of Accelerated Curricula and Pedagogy: High-Challenge, High-Support Classrooms for Underprepared Students. Oakland, CA: LearningWorks. http://www.learningworksca.org/accelerated-pedagogy/.

Witham, Keith, Lindsey E. Malcom-Piqueux, Alicia C. Dowd, and Estela M. Bensimon. 2015. America’s Unmet Promise: The Imperative for Equity in Higher Education. Washington, DC: Association of American Colleges and Universities.

The authors retain copyright to this article, which is published here with permission.

Katie Hern is cofounder of the California Acceleration Project; Jennifer Brezina is project director for academic affairs at College of the Canyons.

Previous Issues