Developmental Education Acceleration Project


Even though enrollment in community colleges is steadily increasing, graduation and transfer rates remain disappointingly low. Developmental (or remedial) math is arguably the greatest stumbling block to community college completion. With multiple exit points along the way, traditional developmental math sequences can be long and may not be optimally structured to retain students or help them learn the skills they need to succeed in college-level work. Research shows that many students exit the sequence before completing it, either because they fail a course, do so poorly that they give up, or fail to enroll in the necessary courses at all. Moreover, developmental math classes are characterized by lectures and by rote, procedural learning — an approach that may inhibit not only students’ mathematical proficiency but also their engagement in college.

In response to these challenges and low success rates, reforms to accelerate students through developmental math sequences are gaining momentum across the country. These reforms restructure course sequence, content, pacing, and/or the pedagogical approach in an effort to move students into college-level courses more quickly.

The Developmental Education Acceleration Project will test the effectiveness of two such programs. The first, ModMath at Tarrant County College in Fort Worth, Texas, employs a modularized approach that divides three semesters-worth of developmental math curriculum into six discrete modules, allowing students to enter the developmental math sequence at a point that is most appropriate given their skills, and to leave and return without losing as much ground as they would in semester-length courses.  The second study is assessing the effects of a new state policy that requires colleges to place students with very low math placement test scores in “pre-developmental” math programs. Two sites are participating: Tarrant County College and Houston Community College. The former site is implementing a open-entry “boot camp” operated with Adult Basic Education funds and staff, while the latter site operates a four-week “bridge” course.

Agenda, Scope, and Goals

A growing number of policymakers, practitioners, and researchers in community colleges believe that acceleration strategies offer the most promise for increasing the number of students who complete the developmental math sequence and go on to attempt college-level work. Despite the increasing popularity and promise of these reforms, there is a dearth of reliable evidence about their effectiveness, and, to date, these programs have not been the subject of a rigorous experimental evaluation. With funding from the Institute of Education Sciences, U.S. Department of Education, MDRC’s study will provide much-needed evidence of the effects of different acceleration models, thereby helping policymakers and community college practitioners make more informed decisions about how best to improve the outcomes of students who test into developmental education.

Key research questions for the evaluation include:

  • Do students in the selected programs achieve better academic outcomes than students in the college’s standard developmental math program?

  • Do the program’s impacts vary by students’ characteristics, such as baseline level of need for developmental math?

  • How is the program implemented?

  • How do the planned program services compare with the offered program services — that is, to what degree is there fidelity to the program model?

  • How are the services program group students receive different from those control group students receive — that is, to what degree is there a treatment contrast?

Design, Sites, and Data Sources

The Developmental Education Acceleration Project uses a random assignment research design to estimate the effects of the program at Tarrant County Community College and a regression discontinuity design to examine the effects of the new testing and placement policies at Houston Community College. Study students at both sites will be tracked for up to three semesters to determine program impacts on such outcomes as credit accumulation, course and sequence completion, and persistence.

Tarrant County College has run ModMath since 2008. Its ModMath program follows a computer-assisted “modularization” approach to delivering developmental math, dividing developmental math curriculum into discrete modules. In theory, students who are in ModMath are more likely to complete the developmental sequence and do so more quickly than students in traditionally taught, 16-week courses, because ModMath allows students to enter the developmental math sequence at a more accurate placement level and leave and return (or fail and return) to the sequence without losing as much ground as they would in semester-long courses. In addition, the program’s use of computer-assisted instruction is believed to promote a student-centered model of learning, which may lead students to feel a heightened sense of self-efficacy and allow them to move through the material of the sequence faster than they might in a traditional, 16-week course, potentially completing two courses in just one semester.

Study intake and random assignment for the ModMath study began in November 2013 for the spring 2014 semester and was completed by fall 2015. More than 1,400 students were randomly assigned. An interim report will be released in mid-2016, and a final report will be released about one year later. Study intake for the Houston study was completed in spring 2016. A report will be released in 2017 or 2018.