Giordano, Joanne Baird, and Holly Hassel. “Unpredictable Journeys: Academically At-Risk Students, Developmental Education Reform, and the Two-Year College.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College 43.4 (2016): 371-90. Web. 11 July 2016.
Joanne Baird Giordano and Holly Hassel report on a study of thirty-eight underprepared students negotiating the curriculum at a “small midwestern campus” that is part of a “statewide two-year liberal arts institution” (372). The study assessed the placement process, the support systems in place, and the efforts to “accelerate” students from developmental coursework to credit-bearing courses (374). The institution, an open-access venue, accepted 100 percent of applicants in 2014 (372).
Giordano and Hassel position their study in an ongoing conversation about how best to speed up students’ progress through college and improve graduation rates—the “college completion agenda” (371). Expressing concern that some policy decisions involved in these efforts might result from what Martha E. Casazza and Sharon L. Silverman designate as “misunderstood studies of ‘remedial’ student programs” (371), Giordano and Hassel present their study as reinforcing the importance of a robust developmental curriculum within an open-access environment and the necessity for ongoing support outside of regular classwork. They also focus on the degree to which placement procedures, even those using multiple measures, often fail to predict long-term student trajectories (371, 377).
The researchers characterize their institution as offering a “rigorous general-education curriculum” designed to facilitate student transfer to the four-year institutions within the state (372). They note that the two-year institution’s focus on access and its comprehensive placement process, which allows faculty to consider a range of factors such as high school grades, writing samples, and high-school coursework (375), mean that its developmental writing program is more likely to serve underprepared students than is the case at colleges that rely on less varied placement measures such as standardized tests (374). The thirty-eight students in the study all had test scores that would have placed them in multiple developmental sections at many institutions (374).
The institution’s goal is to reduce the amount of time such students spend in developmental curricula while supporting the transition to credit-bearing coursework (373). The writing program offers only one developmental course; after completing this course, students move to a two-course credit-bearing sequence, the second component of which fulfills the core writing requirement for four-year institutions within the state (373-74). A curriculum that features “integrated reading and writing” and a small-group “variable-credit, nondegree studio writing course” that students can take multiple times support students’ progress (373).
Examination of student work in the courses in which they were placed indicates that students were generally placed appropriately (375). Over the next two years, the researchers assessed how well the students’ written work met course outcomes and interviewed instructors about student readiness to move forward. Giordano and Hassel then collected data about the students’ progress in the program over a four-year period (375).
Noting that 74% of the students studied remained in good academic standing after their first year, Giordano and Hassel point out that test scores bore no visible relation to academic success (377). Eighteen of the students completed the second-semester writing course. Acknowledging that this percentage was lower than it would be for students whose test scores did not direct them into developmental classes, the authors argue that this level of success illustrates the value of the developmental coursework they undertook. Whereas policy makers often cite developmental work as an impediment to college completion, Giordano and Hassel argue that this coursework was essential in helping the underprepared students progress; they contend that what prevents many such students from moving more quickly and successfully through college is not having to complete extra coursework but instead “the gradual layering of academic and nonacademic challenges” that confronts these students (377).
The authors present a case study to argue that with ongoing support, a student whose scores predict failure can in fact succeed at college-level work (378-79). More problematic, however, are the outcomes for students who place into more than one developmental course, for example, both writing and math.
For example, only three of twenty-one students placing into more than one developmental section “completed a state system degree of any kind,” but some students in this category did earn credits during the four years of the study (380). The authors conclude from data such as these that the single developmental section of writing along with the studio course allowed the students to succeed where they would ordinarily have failed, but that much more support of different kinds is needed to help them progress into the core curriculum (381).
The authors examined the twenty students who did not complete the core requirement to understand how they “got stuck” in their progress (381). Some students repeatedly attempted the initial credit-bearing course; others avoided taking the core courses, and others could not manage the second, required writing course (382-83). The authors offer “speculat[ion]” that second-language issues may have intervened; they also note that the students did not take the accompanying studio option and their instructors chose a “high-stakes, single-grade essay submission” process rather than requiring a portfolio (382).
In addition, the authors contend, many students struggled with credit-bearing work in all their courses, not just writing and reading (383). Giordano and Hassel argue that more discipline-specific support is needed if students are to transition successfully to the analytical thinking, reading, and writing demanded by credit-bearing courses. They note that one successful strategy undertaken by some students involved “register[ing] in gradually increasing numbers of reading-intensive credits” (384), thus protecting their academic standing while building their skills.
Another case study of a student who successfully negotiated developmental and lower-level credit-bearing work but struggled at higher levels leads Giordano and Hassel to argue that, even though this student ultimately faced suspension, the chance to attend college and acquire credits exemplified the “tremendous growth as a reader, writer, and student” open access permits (384).
The study, the authors maintain, supports the conclusion, first, that the demand from policy-making bodies that the institutions and faculty who serve underprepared students be held accountable for the outcomes of their efforts neglects the fact that these institutions and educators have “the fewest resources and voices of influence in higher education and in the policy-making process” (384). Second, they report data showing that policies that discourage students from taking advantage of developmental work so they can move through coursework more quickly result in higher failure rates (387). Third, Giordano and Hassel argue that directed self-placement is not appropriate for populations like the one served by their institution (387). Finally, they reiterate that the value of attending college cannot be measured strictly by graduation rates; the personal growth such experiences offer should be an essential component of any evaluation (387-88).