Seeking a new path to increase college retention

At the Rhode Island Department of Education (RIDE), we strive to prepare our graduates for success in postsecondary education, work, and life. Like so many education systems across the country, however, each year, we at RIDE have seen thousands of our high school graduates drop out of college before even reaching their second year. By examining the data, we identified that students were consistently dropping out of college once they encountered remediation courses.

Nearly half of Rhode Island students who enroll in one of our three public colleges are placed into developmental courses. Of those, around 70% drop out of college within a year. Intensifying these bleak outcomes is the reality that while students in Rhode Island can earn a degree for free at local community colleges, developmental education courses are excluded from that deal, catching many of our students off guard with unexpected bills.

Recognizing the urgent need to change our approach, we set out to form a partnership between our high schools and colleges to ensure that students arrive at college prepared for college-level coursework.

Building evidence-based high school and college readiness courses in partnership with WestEd

To do this, we partnered with our state’s three public colleges, who recognized that the status quo was not serving our students and whose collaboration was key to better aligning K-12 and college standards. Together, we searched for partners in the field who could help us design quality, student-centered readiness content that focused not just on the skills that students were missing, but on the college-level work that we were preparing them for.

WestEd’s Carnegie Math Pathways and Reading Apprenticeship offered the evidence-based content and student-centered approach that we were searching for. With input from our local educators, administrators, and professors, they also worked with us to create custom courses to meet our students’ specific needs. With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we took advantage of WestEd’s adaptive learning platform to provide effective distance learning opportunities, and we expanded our programming to rising 9th-graders. Our goal was to mitigate learning loss caused by the disruption from COVID-19 and to ensure that our students were well prepared for high school and college.

Our four, 8-week-long remote readiness courses—English and math courses for rising 9th-graders, rising 12th-graders, and departing high school seniors—launched in the summer of 2020. Each course was designed with synchronous and asynchronous components, enabling students to work both independently and with their classmates during live collaboration sessions. By bringing these courses online, we were also able to offer students the flexibility to learn at the pace that best suited their learning styles.

And the demand was overwhelming. Within five days, more than 2,000 students had registered for the courses, with 10% of the entire 9th-grade cohort statewide registering for the courses. This response has shown that this shift is something our community desperately needs from us and is already benefiting from.

High impact courses that are boosting engagement and achievement

The impact in both English and math was game-changing, with students demonstrating growth in critical reading areas and in post-math test results. Twelfth-grade students who took the pre and the post math test improved their SAT scores, on average, by 55 points. Even more impressive, students who had enrolled in the math courses below grade level were improving their SAT scores, on average, by 100 points. In the high school math readiness course, students improved their post-math test scores by an average of 15 percentage points.

In their reading courses, students demonstrated gains in comprehension of complex texts, positive self-concept as readers and students, and explicit approaches to reading complex texts. Students across all courses reported feeling engaged and connected to their peers and teachers.

The benefits of the readiness courses extended to our teachers as well. Our staff reported finding the course content engaging and high-quality, and many teachers appreciated the opportunity to gain experience and skills with new teaching styles and tools that could be used both online and in person.

Key takeaways and next steps

A variety of factors contributed to the success of our readiness courses. The broad coalition between RIDE, our public colleges, and WestEd enabled us to remove siloes that unwittingly interfered with our students’ success. With WestEd’s balanced focus on readiness as well as developmental education, we were able to confidently promote these courses not as remedial but as foundational to college success, helping us reduce the stigma for students who were a grade level behind and boost recruitment. And the robust training and professional development provided for RIDE educators, which included one-on-one coaching and a community of practice, supported our teachers as they embraced an innovative instructional approach.

Perhaps most important to our students’ success was the relevant, contextualized curricula that students could connect with real-world situations in their lives. The English and math lessons helped students develop critical thinking skills important not only to their future studies and careers, but also to helping them process and interpret the challenging events happening around them at the time, including the social justice movements in response to George Floyd’s death and the pandemic.

With heartening outcomes from our summer effort, we are even more optimistic about continuing our partnership with WestEd to improve and expand our math and literacy readiness courses. We are offering similar courses year round and aim to eventually expand to elementary school, with the hope of capturing students at critical junctures to prepare them for the next step in their learning journeys. We’re excited because our kids and teachers love these courses, and they’re making a real difference in student achievement.