Developmental Education Reform for English Learners

By: Jessica Brathwaite, Community College Research Center

K-12 enrollment trends suggest that the number of English learners enrolling at community colleges is increasing. Though there are no consistent measures used to identify English learners at the postsecondary level, the number of ELs enrolled in K-12 schools nationwide increased by 11 percent between 2010 and 2018, from 4.5 to 5 million students. Also, relative to their native-U.S.-born peers, immigrant students are more likely to attend community colleges than four-year institutions.

This growth creates an opportunity for community colleges to increase student success rates by focusing more attention on English learners¹ . Some colleges have long-standing commitments to the success of ELs, while ELs are something of a hidden population at other colleges. Without a consistent way to identify the EL population, most studies focus on the ELs who enroll in English as a second language courses. These studies suggest that ESL enrollees have weaker postsecondary outcomes than those who do not enroll in ESL.

ESL course pathways are similar to those of students placed into traditional developmental education pathways, and may similarly hinder student progression and increase inequities in student outcomes. While developmental education reform has taken off, there’s been less progress on the front of ESL reform. More information is needed on the EL population before colleges can figure out the best way to help them succeed academically. In most states and systems, there is no statutory requirement for institutions to identify and serve this population.

How can institutions design better programs, policies and practices for ELs? Currently, most students are identified as ELs based on a placement test or self-identification, but this is likely an underestimation of the number of students who could benefit from English language support. ELs are a large and heterogeneous group. Some students are pursuing a degree and/or plan to transfer to a four-year institution. Others enroll to improve their English skills so they can more easily navigate U.S. society, without pursuing a formal degree. ELs vary in their level of academic preparation, but it is important to distinguish the need for English language support for those deemed unprepared. Developing a consistent and accurate way to identify ELs will help colleges leverage developmental education reforms to better serve ELs. Coupled with better identification of ELs, changes to ESL assessment and placement systems, and course structures, have the potential to help more students meet their postsecondary goals.

Evolving assessment and placement systems

ESL assessment and placement systems share many of the same problems as those used in traditional developmental education, namely the use of a single assessment for placement. The use of a single placement exam is not an accurate way to measure students’ aptitude and can pose unnecessary obstacles to college-level courses, especially for Black, Hispanic and low-income students, who are most likely to be placed into prerequisite developmental education. Many colleges now consider multiple measures to determine college readiness, which has improved equity in access to and success in college-level coursework for these students. To further eliminate obstacles for students, some colleges allow students to choose their own level of placement, a practice known as informed self-placement.

Building on their experience with developmental reform, some colleges have begun using multiple measures or ISP for ESL placement. Multiple measures policy can indirectly exclude ELs from the benefits of assessment and placement reforms if they require students to submit measures of academic preparation that are only available to U.S.-educated students or recent high school graduates. An inclusive multiple measures policy allows students to demonstrate their level of academic preparation regardless of their country of education or academic history. To help students make decisions about their placement levels in an ISP system, advisors may ask students to self-assess their level of English proficiency, describe their academic goals or describe their past course experiences. Placement discussions with an advisor, preferably a multilingual advisor, and the student-led placement decisions of ISP may be a particularly useful placement mechanism when students do not have access to recent measures of U.S. high school performance. The limited data available indicates that the use of ISP for ESL placement reform is still rare, but all colleges have the opportunity to expand access to college-level coursework and adequately support their ELs.

Reforming course structures

Students assigned to take ESL are typically required to take one or more courses to practice their reading, writing, listening and speaking skills in English. These courses can amount to long prerequisite course sequences, much like traditional developmental education course sequences, and students may often be required to enroll in developmental education upon their completion of their ESL course sequence. Developmental reform strategies designed to accelerate student progress have greatly increased access to college-level coursework. PPIC researchers find that integrating various skills into a single course, offering ESL courses that lead directly to college-level coursework and offering ESL for credit as a foreign language have improved equity and student success in California community colleges.

Colleges have also created accelerated ESL course sequences to help students enroll in college-level English more quickly. Some are also experimenting with corequisite courses for ESL, where ESL students take college-level courses while they simultaneously receive the English support they need. While we have not come across many models of accelerated ESL courses, state policy has the potential to drive these types of innovations by holding colleges accountable for the persistence of students deemed to be in need of ESL courses. Assembly Bill 705 (AB705) in California² requires community colleges to use multiple measures to place students and implement course structures that maximize the number of ELs enrolling in college-level courses within three years of starting college.

More research is needed to identify ELs and to understand the types of academic and nonacademic supports they need, but there is reason to believe that the current structure of ESL poses many of the same issues, and opportunities, as traditional developmental education. Leveraging developmental reforms to assessment, placement and course structures to help ELs will help both the students and the colleges looking to improve their students’ success.

¹ The term “English Learner” is contested, in part because it suggests the prioritization of learning the English language over the student’s native language, but it is used widely in K-12 research, practice and policy. Nuñez et al., 2016 propose using this term to create consistency across the K-12 and postsecondary sectors to facilitate the development of practices and policies that help improve the outcomes of ELs. 

² The accordion model previously mentioned is not in response to AB 705 and it precedes AB-705 legislation.