Raising the Floor

New Approaches to Serving the Lowest-Skilled Students at Community Colleges in Texas and Beyond

By Mary Visher, Oscar Cerna, John Diamond, Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow

Nationwide, more than half of community college applicants fail to qualify as “college ready” in math and must start their college education by passing at least one “developmental,” or remedial, course. Many students face a sequence of developmental courses, and four out of five of these students do not complete a college-level math course within three years of enrollment.

The combination of large numbers of students entering college with very low math skills and their very low chances of moving on to college-level courses, let alone earning a credential, has fueled important policy changes affecting how this population is served, at both the state and college levels. Whether motivated by the desire to improve aggregate completion rates, the hope that a different way of instructing students will yield better outcomes, or the need to reduce costs, some reforms simply adjust the cut scores to allow fewer students into the developmental math program (“raising the floor”) or allow more students to attempt college-level math (“lowering the ceiling”).

In 2014, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board adopted a new mathematics placement test, and the state raised the cut score for placing students in developmental education and eliminated the lowest-level developmental math course. Colleges had several options for how to serve the lowest-scoring students who would otherwise have enrolled in that course.

MDRC is conducting an implementation and impact study of how two of the largest community colleges in Texas, Houston Community College (HCC) and Tarrant County College (TCC), responded and how low-scoring students who subsequently applied to these institutions are faring under the new rules. HCC offered a four-week “bridge course,” administered by its mathematics department, for students whose math proficiency was below ninth grade. TCC chose to offer such students a noncredit, open-ended computer lab, administered by its Continuing and Industry Education program, where students could work at their own pace for as long as they needed to attain ninth-grade proficiency.

This brief offers context for the study by describing the two programs, the state guidelines that made them happen, and how other states and colleges are reforming their approaches to serving low-scoring students across the country. It also offers some demographic information about the students in the impact study and previews early implementation findings likely to inform state and college efforts to put similar policies in place.

Document Details

Publication Type
October 2017
Visher, Mary, Oscar Cerna, John Diamond, and Elizabeth Zachry Rutschow. 2017. “Raising the Floor.” New York: MDRC.