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How to prevent worsening developmental ed equity gaps in a COVID-19 landscape

July 31, 2020

By Forrest C. Helvie, Ph.D., Norwalk Community College

After fifteen years in a classroom, I’ve grown accustomed to the varying levels of preparedness among students in my developmental English classes. Community colleges have the opportunity to serve some of the most diverse students in higher education, but too often colleges get English placement wrong and students find themselves placed into developmental education courses that they’ll never complete. Unfortunately, Black and Hispanic students are the most likely to be affected by these placement measures.

Experts anticipate that closed campuses and remote learning during the COVID-19 pandemic will cause more students to place into developmental classes due to the gap in spring coursework. While community college leaders are developing new approaches to engaging and enrolling new students, these innovations can’t stop at a redesigned website. Instead, I’d like to share three insights for community college leaders to consider when reevaluating how they assess students’ English readiness.

Tests disproportionately place Black and Hispanic students in remedial courses

Across the past decade, colleges have tried various strategies to place students into the appropriate level of English. Most recently, multiple measures provided a beacon of hope for fairly evaluating student ability to succeed in college-level coursework. The concept is to use various measures to more fairly assess students’ readiness: placement tests, high school GPA, time since high school, writing samples, etc. But this approach has been applied inconsistently across the country based on resources available—and in practice, many colleges still rely heavily on tests as their primary means of evaluating students. These tests consistently disadvantage students of color given that all but white and Asian students perform below their peers’ scores. The graphic below highlights these disparities among 2019 SAT and ACT test-takers.  It shows significant differences between testing outcomes of Black and Hispanic students as compared to their white and Asian peers.

SAT/ACT Takers Meeting ACT/SAT’s College Readiness Benchmarks2019, By Race

When SAT and ACT scores are used to place students into developmental education, colleges will see more Black and Hispanic students in developmental education than white students. Our university peers have been steadily removing SAT and ACT scores from admissions requirements, which has resulted in an increase in applications from students from underrepresented backgrounds.

In addition to SAT and ACT tests, studies are emerging that raise questions of equity on ACCUPLACER, a popular placement test used by colleges and universities. Data on performance by race on these tests must raise questions about whether students have been incorrectly placed into developmental coursework as a result of utilizing these high-stakes tests. We need to expand our views beyond “business as usual” for student placement, rather than relegating more Black and Hispanic students to developmental education.

Using best practices from the pandemic to provide equitable course placement

Up to 1/3

of students are placed inappropriately in college courses, nationally

COVID-19 has forced reevaluations of countless student services, classroom interactions, and—for many colleges—assessment measures. Even those colleges that usually rely on college entrance exams and placement tests as their primary placement tool have found themselves using alternative measures for placement. But this is one crisis strategy that should remain long after the pandemic.

At the college where I teach in Connecticut, we have implemented multiple measures for years (though legislatively required statewide starting in 2014) to make sure that a single test does not determine the fate of our incoming students. Nationally, up to 1/3 of students are placed inappropriately. College administrators should use this moment in which tests are harder to conduct—and therefore more challenging to rely upon for placement—to question the fundamental use of high-stakes testing at all. Why return to the use of tests that have been shown to disadvantage large swaths of historically disenfranchised students?

A path forward with student-centric measures

In the absence of standardized testing options during the pandemic, more colleges turned to a metric that has proven far more accurate and promising: high school GPA. Whether the student graduated recently or long ago, a verified high school GPA should be the first measure used to place students into college-level coursework, rather than a single, high-stakes test. 

However, colleges must ensure that the high-school GPA used is verified, not student-reported. While this method isn’t perfect, using high school GPA is far more equitable for students than testing. It provides a longitudinal perspective on student performance rather than a test that assesses the student’s ability at one point in time. Also, compared to standardized testing tools, it requires minimal financial investment, if any, from institutions and could be quickly incorporated into colleges’ admissions and placement processes with relative ease. To ensure this method can be readily employed in the future, community colleges need to work with local high schools to develop a means of sharing this information to ease student enrollment and placement.


of community college students who are placed into developmental coursework complete a degree
of community college students who are placed into developmental coursework complete a degree

In addition to using high school GPA, there are other measures that can better reflect students’ abilities than high-stakes testing. When high school transcripts aren’t available, essays do a better job of reflecting students’ abilities. Of course, this measure demands human resources to conduct the assessment, but it also allows students to be placed based on the experience of faculty who will be teaching them, and these faculty members intimately know the standards that these new students will be held to in the classroom. By using blind reading measures, institutions can also mitigate reader bias. In fact, essays shouldn’t be used just in placement: I recommend all English faculty have students complete a first-day writing assessment. Not only can this validate student placement, but it can also provide a baseline for the rest of the course of student growth.

For decades, students have cited self-actualization as one of the primary purposes for their attending college. Yet, our current instruments for assessment prevent our most vulnerable student populations from realizing their full potential. Just 28% of community college students who are placed into developmental coursework complete a degree. College administrators must not only recognize this equity gap as a denial of non-white Americans’ right to achieve their dreams, but also work to increase access for all students.

Dr. Forrest C. Helvie is the Chair for the Academic Enrichment and First-Year Experience Department at Norwalk Community College in Connecticut and has been teaching developmental English for over fifteen years. He lives in Newington, CT with his wife and two sons.

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