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     Access at the Crossroads Blog

    These blog entires identify best practices to increase success for historically-underrepresented college students including excerpts from my book, Access at the CrossroadsClick here to subscribe to this blog.


    Addition by Subtraction: The Relation Between Dropout Rates and School-Level Academic Achievement 

    [Click on this link to read the entire article.]

    Background/Context: Efforts to improve student achievement should increase graduation rates. However, work investigating the effects of student-level accountability has consistently demonstrated that increases in the standards for high school graduation are correlated with increases in dropout rates. The most favored explanation for this finding is that high-stakes testing policies that mandate grade repetition and high school exit exams may be the tipping point for students who are already struggling academically. These extra demands may, in fact, push students out of school.

    Purpose/Objective/Focus: This article examines two hypotheses regarding the relation between school-level accountability and dropout rates. The first posits that improvements in school performance lead to improved success for everyone. If school-level accountability systems improve a school for all students, then the proportion of students performing at grade level increases, and the dropout rate decreases. The second hypothesis posits that schools facing pressure to improve their overall accountability score may pursue this increase at the cost of other student outcomes, including dropout rate.

    Research Design: Our approach focuses on the dynamic relation between school-level academic achievement and dropout rates over time—that is, between one year’s achievement and the subsequent year’s dropout rate, and vice versa. This article employs longitudinal data of records on all students in North Carolina public schools over an 8-year period. Analyses employ fixed-effects models clustering schools and districts within years and controls each year for school size, percentage of students who were free/reduced-price lunch eligible, percentage of students who are ethnic minorities, and locale.

    Findings/Results: This study finds partial evidence that improvements in school-level academic performance will lead to improvements (i.e., decreases) in school-level dropout rates. Schools with improved performance saw decreased dropout rates following these successes. However, we find more evidence of a negative side of the quest for improved academic performance. When dropout rates increase, the performance composites in subsequent years increase.

    Conclusions/recommendations: Accountability systems need to remove any indirect benefit a school may receive from increasing its dropout rate. Schools should be held accountable for those who drop out of school. Given the personal and social costs of dropping out, accountability systems need to place more emphasis on dropout prevention. Such an emphasis could encompass increasing the dropout age and having the school’s performance composite include scores of zero on end-of-grade tests for those who leave school.


    Push to Reform Remedial Education Raises Difficult Questions for Colleges

    By Katherine Mangan  As the pressure on community colleges to accelerate or even eliminate remedial-education requirements intensifies, vexing questions are being asked about the impact such a shift could have on low-income and minority students.  Those who are the least prepared for college stand the most to lose from policies that push students quickly into college-level classes, according to some of the educators gathered here for the annual meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges. And those students tend, disproportionately, to be minority and poor.

    But others argue that struggling students are ill served when they have to pass through a lengthy series of remedial courses before they can start earning college credit. Too often, they get discouraged and drop out before earning a single credit.  “For many of these students, a remedial course is their first college experience, as well as their last,” Stan Jones, president of the nonprofit advocacy group Complete College America, said on Monday during a session that delved into the politics behind developmental-education reform.  Community colleges have done a great job of diversifying their first-year classes, he said. “But if you fast-forward to graduation day and look at who’s on the stage, they’ve lost a lot of that representation.”

    Mr. Jones, whose group is working with 32 states and the District of Columbia to advance its college-completion goals, added that there are “no good answers” to what happens to the least-prepared students “when they insist on wanting an academic program.” Many could benefit, he said, by enrolling in a short-term certificate program that offers job training, with remediation built in.  That sounds like tracking to some educators who remember the days when minority students were routinely routed to vocational courses. But with so many employers lining up to hire students with technical skills in fields like manufacturing and welding, “voc-ed” doesn’t carry the stigma it once did.

    The session served as a sparring match of sorts between Mr. Jones and one of his most persistent critics, who says Complete College America exaggerates the shortcomings of remedial education and pushes simplistic solutions for complex problems.  The tone on Monday, however, was polite as the two, meeting for the first time, agreed on one key point: that most stand-alone remedial courses, by themselves, aren’t serving students well.  Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education and a professor of higher education at Appalachian State University, said that if state legislators enacted one-size-fits-all models for streamlining remedial education, “there could be a lot of collateral damage” to minority and low-income students.  “If you don’t pilot innovations before mandating them statewide, the unintended consequences will come up and bite you,” he said. “If you pilot an innovation, you can work the bugs out before everybody has to live with it.”

    ‘Legislators Are Getting Anxious’
    So why all the focus now on fixing remedial education? Several factors have created a “sense of urgency,” according to Matt Gianneschi, vice president for policy and programs at the Education Commission of the States, a national nonprofit group that tracks state policy trends.  The Common Core State Standards, a set of benchmarks that have been adopted by 45 states, will create a “common exit point and common entry point that has never existed before,” he said. The benchmarks will sharply delineate who is and isn’t ready for college, he said, and are likely to show that even fewer students are prepared.  That’s the last thing that two-year colleges want to hear at a time when President Obama and major foundations are calling for double-digit increases in their completion rates.  “It’s creating real urgency, and legislators are getting anxious,” said Mr. Gianneschi. As a result, many are no longer content to defer to faculty members on academic matters. “Many legislatures are now looking at ways they can force their priorities on the academy to get them to move in new directions.”

    In Florida, they’re making remediation optional for most high-school graduates. In Connecticut, they’re limiting it to one semester, unless it’s embedded in a college-credit course. And in statehouses across the country, groups like Complete College America are urging lawmakers to replace stand-alone remedial courses with models that are offered either alongside or as part of college-credit classes.  In Texas, lawmakers seeking to cut remediation costs and put more students directly into college classes passed legislation, taking effect next year, that will bump many of the least-prepared students from remedial education to adult basic education.  Karen Laljiani, associate vice president of Cedar Valley College, said her college would be able to offer only two levels of remedial mathematics instead of four. Those at the upper end of the cutoff will be accelerated into credit courses, which has some faculty members worried about an influx of unprepared students.

    Helping the Least-Prepared
    The big question, though, is what will happen to students who used to place into the lowest levels of remedial math, some of whom might test at third-grade levels. Some might qualify for short-term, noncredit certificate programs that provide training for blue-collar jobs. And in some cases, remediation could be built right into the course.  The college may have to refer others to community groups that handle literacy and job training—a prospect that many community-college educators see as abandoning their open-door mission. Colleges that are already struggling with reduced enrollment also worry about the additional tuition revenue they’ll lose when students are moved into adult basic education, for which they typically don’t receive any state funds.

    Among the questions that the changes are raising: What responsibility do community colleges have to educate students who are so far behind that they would struggle even in remedial classes? How do they structure those courses at a time when the emphasis is on accelerating students into college-level classes?  The head of the National Association for Developmental Education said her group was worried that colleges would start turning those least-prepared students away as pressure to push students through to completion intensified.  “If open-access institutions are forced to shut that door, it would be a dark day," said Patti Levine-Brown, a professor of communications at Florida State College at Jacksonville and former president of the National Association for Developmental Education. "It would go against everything we were created to do.”


    Some Colleges Try to Catch Students Up Before They’re Behind

    By Sara Lipka.  Community colleges contend with a difficult reality: Many students show up unready for college-level work, and few of them catch up and graduate. To shift that status quo, as campuses around the country introduce new models of remedial, or developmental, education, some are trying to reduce the need for it.

    The American Association of Community Colleges set a bold goal at its annual meeting here this week: to decrease by half the number of students who come to college unprepared. In presentations on Sunday and Monday, administrators and faculty members shared ideas for how to do that, describing new partnerships with local school districts to offer the colleges’ remedial courses to high-school students. Catch them up, the thinking goes, before they’re behind.

    William Penn Senior High School needs that kind of intervention, presenters from Harrisburg Area Community College said here. The college’s York campus, in south central Pennsylvania, sees more students from nearby William Penn than almost anywhere else. Ninety-two percent place into remedial reading, and 100 percent into remedial mathematics.  “These kids are scoring in the lowest developmental levels that we have,” Marjorie A. Mattis, the campus dean, told an audience of educators from Kansas, Montana, Oregon, and Texas. “How long can we sit back and see these types of results and not do anything about it?”  Conversations with the superintendent produced a plan. Last year on a pilot basis and this year for all seniors at William Penn, English and math follow the college’s developmental curriculum.

    Students take placement tests at the end of their junior year, and in the fall they report to a “HACC hallway,” painted in the college’s colors, with classroom tables instead of desks. Teachers must meet the criteria for instructors at the college, which at least one already is. Summer sessions familiarize them with the college’s textbooks, syllabi, and method of assignment review, and during the year the teachers work with college-faculty liaisons.  At the end of the pilot year, tests—offered on the York campus, so students might take them more seriously—showed significant improvement. In English 37 percent of students placed one level higher than they had initially, and in math 39 percent did.  “We’re not going to say that we have every student college-ready, but we’re going to have them more ready than when we started,” said Ms. Mattis. If fewer students place into the lowest levels of developmental education, she said, that’s progress. In general, said William Penn’s principal, the program has more students thinking about college.

    Plans to Scale Up
    Anne Arundel Community College, in eastern Maryland, is pursuing a similar strategy in math. With a grant from the League for Innovation in the Community College, Anne Arundel and its county’s public-school system compared their curricula and opted to offer a pair of the college’s developmental-math courses in two high schools.  Starting last academic year, seniors shifted to a model called Math Firs3t, an abbreviation for “focused individualized resources to support student success with technology.” The computer-based approach involves mastery testing, in which students retake tests until they score at least 70, said Alycia Marshall, a professor and interim chair of mathematics at Anne Arundel, describing the program during a session here.  Of 134 seniors last spring, 107 passed both of the developmental courses, she said. And of those students, 34 enrolled at Anne Arundel and registered for a credit-level math course, which is often a stumbling block for students coming out of remediation. But 30 of them passed.  College and school officials may soon bring the model to other high schools, said Ms. Marshall. “We’re excited about scaling this up,” she said, “because of the success rates.”  This year New Jersey’s 19 community colleges are studying numerous interventions to prepare local high-school students for college-level work. Burlington County College plans to help adapt high-school courses, while other institutions are experimenting with software and summer boot camps.

    Such approaches require close, continuous collaboration between colleges and school districts: “the end of the finger pointing,” Patricia C. Donohue, president of Mercer County Community College, said after a presentation. “By partnering with schools,” she said, “we’re trying to be part of the solution.”


    Published Research: Peer study group leader self disclosure during a study group session

    Allen, A., & Court, S. (2009). Leader self disclosure within PAL: A case study.  Australasian Journal of Peer Learning, 2(1), 68-86. Retrieved from

    Peer Assisted Learning (PAL) is a variant of the Supplemental Instruction (SI) program. The PAL leaders were the subject of this study at Bournemouth University in England. The issue under investigation was self disclosure of the PAL leaders within the learning environment and the impact on students. Qualitative and quantitative methods were used to gain insight about the levels and nature of PAL leader self-disclosure during PAL sessions. Results show that 46% are open with their feelings and 84% often use personal examples within a PAL session. Qualitative methodology identified the types of ways disclosure was used to build trust with students and illustrate what the PAL leader was trying to communicate.


    Published Research: Using Bloom's Taxonomy in a peer learning program

    Aline, F., Zeng, S., & Yu, Y. M. (2012).  Using Bloom’s Taxonomy in a peer-led workshop in probability and statistics. Conference Proceedings of the The Peer-led Team Learning International Society Inaugural Conference, Brooklyn, NY. Retrieved from

    Bloom’s Taxonomy goes hand in hand with the peer-led workshop's methods by providing us as peer leaders with a structured order of the learning levels taken to extend our learning capabilities. We, the Peer Leaders, assist students into progressing to the next level in mathematics by going beyond recalling, understanding and applying (Levels 1-3 of Bloom’s Taxonomy). In our Probability and Statistics I and II workshop, we apply Bloom’s Taxonomy to help the students, especially with the application of comprehension, application, and analysis (Levels 2-4). By proposing questions to the students, we initiate the recollection of the subject at hand. As a result, these questions help the establishment and encouragement of critical thinking for the students, especially in the higher levels. The Analytical level (Level 4) specifically shows that an individual can know whether what he or she is doing allows them to perform well in the subject.


    Published Research: Impact on Peer Leaders in Peer Learning Programs

    Alberte, J. L., Cruz, A., Rodriguez, N., & Pitzer, T. (2012).  The PLTL leader boost. Conference Proceedings of the The Peer-led Team Learning International Society Inaugural Conference, Brooklyn, NY. Retrieved from

    Qualitative data has demonstrated the impact of PLTL on a Peer Leader’s academic performance. In this paper we quantitatively show the presence of the Peer Leader boost at Florida International University. Just as in any apprenticeship role, Peer Leaders undergo an extensive training program and it is this experience which provides an advantage. Training includes pedagogy, classroom dynamics, science concepts, and critical thinking skills equipping Peer Leaders with the necessary skills to manage a productive active learning environment. Initial observations and feedback indicate that participation as a Peer Leader adds value such as enculturation in the discipline, increased performance in traditionally assessed learning outcomes, and increased retention within the discipline. Preliminary data demonstrates a significant difference in the academic success of Peer Leaders in their own course work. This analysis was performed on large enrollment upper-level courses which indicated up to a letter grade difference between Peer Leaders and non-Peer Leaders.


    Published Research: Impact of peer learning with postgraduate students

    Zaccagnini, M., & Verenikina, I. (2014). Peer Assisted Study Sessions for postgraduate international students in Australia.  Journal of Peer Learning, 6(1), 86-102. Retrieved from:

    Peer Assisted Study Sessions (PASS), a peer led academic support program that has multiple documented academic, social, and transition benefits, is increasingly being utilised in Australian instituti ons. Whilst PASS has been evaluated from multiple angles in regard to the undergraduate cohort, there is limited research regarding the benefits of PASS for postgraduate students, particularly international postgraduate students. This specific cohort's perspective is significant as international students constitute a large proportion of postgraduate students in Australian universities. This study investigates the role of PASS in contributing to the experience of international postgraduate coursework students at an Australian university through an investigation of its perceived benefits by this cohort of students.