Reengineering Developmental Math

Accelerating Student Success Through High-Return Personalized Pathways

Topics: Community College, Academic Affairs, Academic Planning, Curriculum Development, Program Approval, Program Prioritization, Student Retention and Success, Developmental and Remedial Education

Pinpoint Non-Cognitive Barriers to Attainment

High School GPA Shockingly Predictive

Measure of Both Academic Aptitude and Non-Cognitive Success Factors

Progressive colleges are seeking methods to identify students’ non-academic strengths (like motivation) upon entry. While cut score exams indicate little about a student’s non-cognitive characteristics, high school GPA effectively captures these non-academic success factors. A study from the Community College Research Center found that high school GPA was a more predictive indicator of student success than standard placement exams. This measure captures students’ motivation to overcome challenges, curiosity, enthusiasm, and self-discipline, all closely related to college success.

In 2012, as part of the Promise Pathways Initiative, Long Beach City College placed first-time enrollees from the local public school system into English and math courses based on their high school GPAs. Early results data shows that Promise Pathways students are three times as likely to attempt college-level math courses as peers and just as likely to succeed in these courses.

The shift toward using high school grades to place students into college courses relies in large part on collaboration between high schools and community colleges. Long Beach City College asked the local public school district to create and share electronic transcripts for graduating seniors. Representatives from the two institutions also collaborated to ensure curricula from the high schools aligned with college courses; this collaboration is time-intensive but necessary to ensure high school course outcomes meaningfully predict college course performance.

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“Character” The Unexplained Success Variable

Non-Academic Factors in Attainment Receive Heightened Cross-Disciplinary Attention

Non-academic factors and their role in student attainment are receiving heightened attention across disciplines. There is a growing consensus that traits like productive persistence, grit, curiosity, optimism, and self-control play a tremendous role in student success.

Given the multitude of terms in use, cross-disciplinary dialogue is often impeded by terminology barriers. To further discussion, we use the term “character” to refer to the broad collection of non-academic traits that factor into student success.

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Do You Have GRIT?

Duckworth’s Character Assessment Highly-Predictive of Student Success

Angela Duckworth from the University of Pennsylvania has conducted extensive research on the relationship between grit—a character trait meaning perseverance and passion for long-term goals—and success among students, National Spelling Bee contestants, working adults, and military personnel. Duckworth’s study of military cadets at West Point revealed that a grit survey was more predictive of success in summer training than the military’s own entrance exam, suggesting that character may be more important than academic aptitude in predicting attainment.

Readers interested in assessing their own grit levels (or piloting the survey with their students), should complete Duckworth’s short grit survey, available online from the University of Pennsylvania.

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Teaching Character Alongside Academics

KIPP Character Reports Generate Skill Development Plan

Progressive colleges are not just thinking about measuring students’ character and grit—they are seeking methods to teach students how to control and change their own behavior. The KIPP charter school district teaches middle school and high school students character development alongside academic content to improve success rates overall. Faculty at KIPP charter schools in New York City use character report cards to evaluate students and facilitate their character development.

In 2011, KIPP published a report that found only one-third of its middle school graduates earned a degree 10 years after graduation. While these results were initially disheartening, a deeper dig into the data found that students who earned degrees were not the ones with the best grades in middle school. These students were notable for possessing high levels of optimism, persistence, and social intelligence. After realizing the importance of these non-academic traits, KIPP focused on developing these skills in the classroom.

Now, KIPP teachers assess students’ behavior in the seven core character strengths at the end of each quarter. Scores from every teacher combine to make Character Point Averages (“CPAs”). These CPAs allow for productive conversations between faculty and students about the importance of character strengths and how they can be developed over time.

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No Character, No Entrance

Character as Gatekeeper to Enrollment at Portmont College

Character diagnostics are rapidly expanding across higher education, and at Portmont College students are required to demonstrate grit to enroll in an associate degree program. Portmont was founded in 2012 as a partnership between MyCollege Foundation and Mount St. Mary’s College in Los Angeles, California. Applicants are allowed to enroll in this program once they’ve demonstrated grit. Portmont’s methods to assess applicants’ levels of grit and foster academically successful behavior are detailed below on the right.

Portmont students learn online and in-person. This allows flexible scheduling but maintains a close-knit cohort of peers and a support network for students. Any student interested in enrolling in a degree program at Portmont first takes a free, three-week “Launchpad” course. The course introduces the college’s core ideas, teaches success habits, and teaches students about their own learning styles. Portmont developed an analytics platform to assess students’ online course-taking behavior by tracking keystrokes. Officials combine these results with student interviews to predict which students are likely to succeed in the program. At the end of the course, students are rated on a “stoplight” scale—if a student receives a green or yellow signal light, they may enroll.

Upon admission, students complete a one-week orientation program in their local area called “Ignition.” Orientation groups are capped at 15 people and convene at least once every eight weeks with their dedicated Success Coach. The coach is responsible for teaching basic academic success skills and behaviors.

Character development continues throughout the academic year. Portmont students take “Lift Off and Soar” success classes to build on their skill development from the orientation session. These one-credit courses are taken in conjunction with two or three other courses pertaining to students’ degree focus.

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Character Assessments Taking Root Across Higher Ed

Non-Academic Traits Guide Course Grades and Advising Strategy

Colleges also use character assessments to guide pathway selection and skill development. Students at Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College are graded on both academic performance and demonstration of “soft skills,” like professionalism and effort. Soft skills assessments alert instructors of areas where students struggle and may need practice to succeed in the professional world. At Zane State College, advisors use character assessments to guide students to the optimal interventions and program of study.

In December 2012, Asheville-Buncombe Technical Community College announced a new rubric to assess students on eight non-academic characteristics: class attendance, time management, professionalism, communication, quality of work, participation and teamwork, effort, and critical thinking. Faculty have the option to count this soft skills assessment for up to 10% of a student’s final course grade. Our interviews with faculty who have incorporated non-academic skill development in their courses revealed that soft skills training directly boosts academic performance. Once students learn to study and take notes, stay motivated through challenges, and work productively with their peers, most perform better overall.

At Zane State College, non-academic character assessments guide advising sessions on campus. All first-year students are directed to take the College Student Inventory (CSI) before the start of classes. The CSI produces two reports, one for advisors and one for the student. The reports rate students on their ability to cope with challenges, stay motivated through challenges, and receive support from others. Depending on the outcomes of the CSI report, students are directed to support resources on campus. Students who are identified as “high-risk” are directed to meet with advisors in-person, and advisors use the CSI reports to guide their recommendations.

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360-Degree Assessment Key to Determining Optimal Mathpath

Emerging strategies like modular math exams and character assessments allow administrators to form a more precise picture of the individual barriers students face, enabling advisors to guide students to optimal mathpaths. The concept is illustrated below using the three students introduced earlier in this publication.

The first student is Abby, for whom formulas are too abstract. Abby doesn’t understand how lessons on factoring and polynomial equations relate to her dream career in law enforcement. An advisor working with Abby might suggest enrollment in a statistics pathway, where the content was made real and mapped to her career goals.

Nancy the No Show faces many academic and non-academic barriers, needing a course that contextualizes math lessons with technical training. She should enroll in an I-BEST program that furthers her career and offers intensive guidance from enrollment to degree attainment.

Fred, challenged by factoring, needs to enroll in a course that focuses on the topic he struggles with, so he can move on to college math. Any advisor who sees Fred’s problem area and recognizes his drive to move on to college algebra would path him to a modularized modified emporium.

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Math Innovation Rubric

Supporting Campus Strategy, Steering Students to Highest-Impact Pathways

A unifying theme throughout this initiative is personalization. As community college student populations become more diverse, it becomes even more important to path students to interventions that effectively prepare them for college success. Our research found that even among high-impact interventions, different strategies are well suited for different student types. Based on over 200 research conversations with innovative colleges across the country, the rubric below summarizes which profiled strategies deliver the greatest return for unique student groups.

The rubric is ideal for sparking campus dialogue about where to focus further math redesign efforts. For institutions hoping to boost completion for borderline basic skills-developmental students, I-BEST would be a good investment to consider. Institutions targeting non-STEM student success might invest in statistics-based developmental pathway programs that contextualize abstract math concepts. For institutions that have already invested heavily in math redesign, the rubric can support advisors in connecting students with the resources proven to maximize their likelihood of degree attainment.

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Reengineering Developmental Math Online Toolkit

Implementation Guidance and Comprehensive Resource Center for Your Campus

This research initiative covered a lot of material, from the inner-workings of flipping the classroom to exploring the relevance of algebra and grit in student success. To help members initiate redesign conversations, pilot, short-circuit implementation, and refine strategy, we have created an online developmental math toolkit with additional practices, lessons learned, templates, and resources for leaders across campus. The toolkit is available exclusively to members of the Community College Forum.

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Prevent Unnecessary Pre-College Placement

Toolkit and Resource Center