Curricular Alignment: One Solution to the Developmental Education Math Problem

by Chauntee R. Thrill M.Ed / Apr 27, 2017

Developmental education is a widespread issue, one that affects a large number of entering college students each year. According to Complete College America (2016), more than 1,000,000 students enroll in developmental education each year. At the community college level, more than half of first-time entering students require developmental education, with the majority of those students enrolled in developmental math courses (Schak, Metzger, Bass, McCann, & English, 2017). Math, often a gatekeeper for many high-level courses, has been a barrier for many community college students, especially those of minority or low-income backgrounds.  About two-thirds of community college students enrolled in developmental education are required to take at least one course in math, with students of severe deficiency requiring two or more courses (Bahr, 2013). This can be detrimental as students who place in lower level developmental education courses can face one or more years in these courses before taking a college-level math course. A recent report indicated that 50% of community college students enrolled in math developmental education complete their remedial coursework, while 29% completed some and 20% completed none of their developmental math courses (Chen & Simone, 2016). These students, the non-completers, are often at risk of stopping out (not completing their degree programs) or enrolling in certificate programs (Bahr, 2013). It is clear there is a need for institutions to focus more attention on improving student progress through their developmental education sequences to college-level math.

States and academic institutions have focused their efforts on increasing student success and progress towards degree completion. Math developmental education has been on the agenda for quite some time, with administrators reforming math curricula and offerings (Boylan, Calderwood, & Bonham, 2017). Specifically, the focus has been on implementing various methods to determine student readiness, identifying accurate placement, and creating math pathways. Additionally, some institutions have redesigned their math developmental education courses, utilizing accelerated learning, co-requisite, and emporium models to increase student success and progression through developmental education (Boylan, Calderwood, & Bonham, 2017; Center for Community College Student Engagement, 2016).

While these reforms have shown progress, they are generally implemented at the community college and do not address math deficiency prior to college enrollment. Despite progress towards strengthening developmental programming, enrollment in math developmental education, specifically, is high. Simply, high school graduates are still unprepared for and unable to complete college-level math courses, an indication that there may be a need to focus on curriculum alignment and preparation between community colleges and high schools. Recently mentioned in the United States Department of Education’s report Developmental Education: Challenges and Strategies for Reform is the need for community colleges and high schools to work collaboratively in an effort to reduce the number of students requiring developmental education (Schak et al., 2017). This collaboration can be beneficial in aligning community college and high school curricula to increase student readiness (Barnett & Hughes, 2010; Schak et al., 2017). Early assessment, especially in the area of mathematics, can provide information on student skill deficiencies prior to high school graduation, allowing students who do not perform well to improve their preparedness through college-readiness interventions and avoid placement in developmental education coursework (Barnett & Hughes, 2010; Schak et al., 2017). Additionally, P-16 partnerships may increase the likelihood that students enrolling in college will be college ready at enrollment and perform better on college placement tests (Center for Community College Student Engagement, 2016).  Much research on early assessment programs focuses on California, whose program has been successful in identifying students who need additional academic preparation. Another program in Tennessee, still relatively new, has also showed positive results, though it is still in its early stages.

Tennessee’s Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support (SAILS)

Implemented in 2012 to address math deficiencies in graduating high school students, Tennessee’s Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support (SAILS) program identified and targeted high school seniors who were defined as not college ready according to math ACT scores.  (Tennessee Higher Education Commission (THEC), 2017). Using a blended learning model (self-paced computer-based instruction and teacher-supported classroom instruction), students were/are provided an opportunity to complete developmental math coursework prior to beginning college (THEC, 2017). At the program’s inception, one high school and one community college participated in the program, which yielded a completion rate of 80% for 20 students (THEC, 2017). During the 2015-16 academic year, SAILS was offered in 239 high schools, in partnership with 13 community colleges, with a completion rate of 92% (THEC, 2017). By the end of the 2015-16 academic year, the SAILS program had enrolled approximately 33,750 students since 2012, of whom 86% completed their developmental math coursework prior to enrolling at the community college (THEC, 2017).  Currently, SAILS has 13,410 students enrolled in the program, almost half of the 30,000 high school students who were identified as not college ready (THEC, 2017). The program focused solely on mathematics until 2016, when it piloted its first program in English.

Final Thoughts

Redesigning math developmental education curricula, programming, and pathways is only one part of the way to address student progression to college-level math coursework. With more than half of community college students requiring one or more courses in math developmental education, there is a need to shift focus to addressing the issue of math preparation (or lack thereof) prior to college enrollment. There is a need for programming and opportunities for development prior to students reaching college if they are going to be successful, and collaborations between community colleges and high schools are vital in ensuring the alignment of curricula and the preparation of college-ready students. Implementing early assessment programming may be the answer we need, as current partnerships are experiencing some success in reducing the number of high school graduates needing math remediation. Despite limited literature on early assessment programs, and those similar to them, these programs have the potential to be game changing if states and institutions buy in and if they are implemented correctly. Math doesn’t have to continue to be an issue for our community college students. I invite you to think about what you can do to reduce math developmental education enrollment and how such programming can be beneficial to your institution, states, and the students you serve.


  • Bahr, P. R. (2013). The aftermath of remedial math: Investigating the low rate of certification completion among remedial math students. Research in Higher Education, 54, 171-200.
  • Barnett, E. A., & Hughes, K. L. (2010). Community college and high school partnerships. New York: Teachers College, Columbia University, Community College Research Center.
  • Boylan, H. R., Calderwood, B. J., & Bonham, B. S. (2017). College Completion-Focus on the finish line. Boone, NC: National Center for Developmental Education.
  • Center for Community College Student Engagement. (2016). Expectations meet reality: The underprepared student and community colleges. Austin, TX: The University of Texas at Austin, College of Education, Department of Educational Administration, Program in Higher Education Leadership.
  • Chen, X., & Simone, S. (2016). Remedial coursetaking at U.S. public 2- and 4- year institutions: Scope, experiences, and outcomes. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Educational Statistics.
  • Complete College America. (April, 2016). Co-requisite remediation: Spanning the completion divide. Retrieved from
  • Schak, O., Metzger, I., Bass, J., McCann, C., & English, J. (2017). Developmental education: challenges and strategies for reform. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Planning, Evaluation and Policy Development.
  • Tennessee Higher Education Commission (2017). 2016-2017 Tennessee Higher Education Fact Book. Nashville, TN: Author.