The Iowa Department of Education published two reports last week from two independent study groups, outlining recommendations and strategies that community colleges and high schools can implement to improve developmental education efficacy.

Developmental education is an aspect of curriculum that is targeted at areas and subjects that students are deficient in. In practice, students take standardized tests — such as the SAT and ACT — in their junior and/or senior years, or collegiate placement tests prior to attending college, that evaluate a student’s knowledge of certain material. A certain score on these tests in a particular subject lets educators know that a student is lacking knowledge of certain facts or concepts and will need remedial courses, such as needing another course in algebra or reading comprehension. These types of courses are what are known as “developmental education” courses, in that they help a student develop to be able to take on the rigor of college material.

The two independent groups were challenged to prepare recommendations about how the state can produce better results with its developmental education programs, as part of achieving the broader vision of the Future Ready Iowa Act, which strives to have 70 percent of Iowa adults having an education beyond a high school diploma by 2025. According to the reports compiled by two independent groups of stakeholders including community college presidents, members of the Board of Regents, and secondary and post-secondary faculty and administrators, the state’s current developmental education curriculum and methods of measurements vary too greatly, and need to better align with the challenges facing modern students.

“Basically, the idea here is that postsecondary training and education is the new minimum in the economy, so how do we get a more credentialed workforce and do so in an expedited way,” said Jeremy Varner, with the Division of Community Colleges and Workforce Preparation within the Iowa Department of Education. “If we’re really going to have a big impact on addressing those 127,000 Iowans or so, that need to get those credentials, there’s really two big levers. One is getting more students to show up to institutions where they can get the postsecondary training, and second is helping those who do show up to ultimately be successful.”

According to the groups’ findings, there is a need for community colleges and high schools to transition from a “traditional deficit model” approach to developmental education, to a “transitional approach.” According to Barbara Burrows, chief of the Department of Education’s Bureau of Community Colleges, simply providing a remedial course to remedy a student’s testing deficiency (the traditional approach) isn’t producing the most efficient developmental education results. Burrows said that there are many factors that go into a student’s educational experience, such as personal determination, commitment, strength of support systems, and test-taking abilities, that could easily impact a student’s performance. Burrows said that to accomplish this task, developmental education needs to be more “holistic,” and assess a student’s potential for success using more than just one test.

To do this, the reports recommend establishing a “State Student Success Center” that all community colleges should align with, that will provide proven strategies about how to make developmental education more efficient for students. This will create standardization throughout the state. Additionally, Varner said that in most circumstances, developmental education courses at colleges don’t count towards a student’s credits, which could make a student’s college experience not only longer, but more costly. To make this more efficient, the groups recommend having co-requisite courses that help students achieve mastery of multiple skills to help make the process smoother, as well as encouraging more dual credit class options while these students are in high school.

Expanding on high school, the groups report that more work needs to be done in addressing achievement gaps in secondary schools to make sure that students don’t need developmental education courses. In addition, the groups recommend that colleges use multiple testing methods to determine if a student needs developmental education courses. A more focused recommendation is to encourage high school students to take a math course their senior year of high school, and ensuring that students do well in that course before attending college. By not taking a math course, the potential for students to need a remedial math course increases.