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Traditional developmental education will fail students experiencing “coronavirus slide.” Here’s what higher ed can do to fix it.

June 16, 2020

By Sakshee Chawla and Alyssa Buccella

During a typical summer break from school, students across the K-12 system experience “summer slide,” or learning loss equal to about one month of achievement gained during the school year. That academic decline is found to be greater in math than in reading, for older students than for younger students, and for students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

Early research predicts the disruption caused by “coronavirus slide” will be far worse. Students may only retain 70% of learning gains from the last school year in reading and may lose 50-100% of the learning gains made in math by fall 2020. Historically underserved students—who may experience greater trauma, family income loss, and food and housing insecurity during this time—are particularly at-risk with dire consequences for high school graduation, college enrollment, and retention rates for years to come.

In response to school closures, some K-12 institutions adjusted grading policies to only assess student performance before shutdowns, instead of penalizing students learning in a remote environment. Once it is safe to return to the classroom, K-12 schools will begin to understand the magnitude of the academic disruption caused by COVID-19.

K-12 institutions are considering several different strategies to mitigate “coronavirus slide”

What does “coronavirus slide” mean for higher ed?

Today’s K-12 students experiencing “coronavirus slide” are tomorrow’s rising college students, who will require more support to be successful once they arrive on college campuses or log in to their first virtual orientation session. In the short term, students will have less time to catch up academically before arriving on campus. In the long term, strategic partnerships between K-12, community colleges, and four-year institutions will be critical to systemically address learning loss, support student progression through the education system, and prepare students for success in an uncertain future.

Helping students now: Fix what’s broken in developmental education

Traditional approaches to developmental education assume that giving students more time to learn foundational academic skills will help them succeed. But in reality, long sequences of fragmented developmental education courses rarely align with students’ academic interests and almost always increase time to degree. Since students from underserved groups are more likely to be placed in developmental education, these practices also contribute to disparate student success outcomes for already vulnerable students.

Broken developmental education system disproportionately impedes academic progress for underserved students


of Pell-eligible students are placed in developmental ed


of Black students are placed in developmental ed


of Latinx students are placed in developmental ed


of white students are placed in developmental ed

Improve 3 areas of developmental education to better support student success


of students assigned to developmental classes based on test scores could have gone straight to a college class and earned a grade B or better
of students assigned to developmental classes based on test scores could have gone straight to a college class and earned a grade B or better

1. Use a combination of academic indicators to improve equity in course placement

Many studies have found that relying on single, high-stakes course placement tests such as ACCUPLACER systematically underestimate students’ abilities, particularly for students of color. Research on alternative placement measures has found high school GPA to be a consistently more useful predictor of college success than standardized assessments, leading some institutions to shift to a multiple-measures approach to placement decisions. To make placement decisions more holistic, institutions use a combination of high school GPA, coursework, AP exams, and SAT or ACT scores to assess student readiness, instead of relying on placement exams alone.

2. Provide developmental education support alongside college-level courses

Requiring students to complete non-credit developmental education courses before entering introductory college-level courses extends students’ time to degree, consumes valuable financial resources, and increases their likelihood of stop out. In response, institutions have shifted the structure and delivery of developmental education to minimize these impacts on student progress. In a co-requisite developmental education model, students are placed directly into introductory college-level coursework and are provided supplemental instruction and support at the same time—with well documented benefits to student persistence, course pass rates, and completion.

3. Create course pathways that align math requirements with academic majors

Research on pedagogy and student success has found curriculum that is relevant to students’ career and educational goals improves retention and completion. But typically, developmental education rarely aligns with students’ long-term academic goals. Particularly, math proficiency continues to be one of the largest obstacles to student persistence and completion. Higher ed institutions must design course pathways, with a focus on their math requirements, to better meet students’ academic needs.

While the education sector’s disjointed ecosystem has long created roadblocks for students, COVID-19 and its impact on learning loss highlights an urgent need to reform developmental education now to best support learning for incoming students and improve equity in student success.


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