Millions of Americans are denied the chance to take college-level courses by a downscale version of the SAT.
Like many other two-year college students, Monica Dekany has taken the long route to a degree. After graduating from high school in Glenelg, Maryland, in 1990, she enrolled in a local community college. Her grades were good there, but her direction was lacking. She dropped out, took a job at a fast-food restaurant, moved across the country, and then tried again at Utah State University in 1992. Again, she was able to pass her courses—with As, sometimes—but she still wasn’t sure of what she wanted to study, and eventually she stopped going to school. It wasn’t until many years, several jobs, and one child later that she decided to give college another try. In 2009, she enrolled at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California, a two-year institution that, like most community colleges, accepts all who apply. Dekany was disappointed that most of her credits from the two other colleges wouldn’t transfer, but no matter: she was motivated enough to start building credits anew.
All she had to do, the registrars told her after she paid her fee, was go down a hallway, pick a cubicle, sidle up to a computer terminal, and take a short test. The “Accuplacer,” as the test is called, was no big deal, they said—nothing she could have studied for. It was just so they could see where she was. Dekany took one test in math and another in English, and was “floored,” as she put it, to learn that she had scored at a level that would consign her to remedial classes, reviews of fundamental material for which she would receive no college credit. “It caught me totally off guard,” Dekany says. The other colleges had let her enroll directly in college-level English and literature classes, and as her transcripts clearly showed, she had passed them. But Golden West told her the test results were all that mattered.
Dekany dutifully enrolled in, and paid for, the remedial—or what colleges euphemistically call “developmental”—courses. She knew everything in the English course already; her daughter’s seventh-grade English class was more advanced. Her math course was similarly low level, but it was taught by a sympathetic professor who helped save her from further remedial work. The college had mandated that Dekany take a second remedial math class before being allowed to take Math 100 for college credit, but her professor thought the requirement made no sense—she was clearly ready for college work. So he arranged for her to take Math 100 at Cal State, Long Beach, where he happened to also teach, and there she got an A.
Dekany went on to excel in college. She’s a member of the Alpha Gamma Sigma honors society, a reporter for the Golden West college newspaper, and the school’s homecoming queen. She’s just a semester away from getting her associate’s degree in social science and on her way to a bachelor’s in counseling. But there’s no getting back what the Accuplacer took from her. Remediation cost her several thousand dollars and set her education and her career back by a year. And if not for her math professor, it would have been even worse.
Dekany barely managed to dodge a fate that is very common among American college students. About 40 percent of them—a total of almost seven million people—go to community colleges, and millions more attend nonselective four-year universities. The vast majority of those institutions require students to take placement tests like the Accuplacer, and more than half the students who take those tests end up in remediation. Unlike Dekany, most students who are assigned to remediation don’t make it through. Some never even show up for
class. Others flunk out. Still more get discouraged and quit.
To be sure, open-access colleges need to assess the knowledge and abilities of incoming students. Dysfunctional public high schools routinely grant diplomas to students who lack basic math and reading skills. As a result, many new college students need help in order to grapple with college-level work. The problem is that colleges have chosen to deal with that challenge by diverting huge numbers of students into a parallel remedial education system with a dismal track record of helping students ultimately graduate from college. Compounding the problem, most colleges place students into the remediation track using nothing more than the results of a short, inexpensive, one-shot multiple-choice test of questionable accuracy and worth.
Most Americans think of the SAT as the ultimate high-stakes college admissions test, but the Accuplacer has more real claim to the title. (As it happens, the same company, the Education Testing Service, produces both exams.) When students apply to selective colleges, they’re evaluated based on high school transcripts, extracurricular pursuits, teacher recommendations, and other factors alongside their SAT scores. In open admissions colleges, placement tests typically trump everything else. If you bomb the SAT, the worst thing that can happen is you can’t go to the college of your choice. If you bomb the Accuplacer, you effectively can’t go to college at all.
The remedial placement process is ground zero for college non-completion in America. If the nation is going to make any headway in helping more students graduate from college, it will have to completely overhaul the way students enrolling in nonselective colleges are tested for college readiness, and make equally fundamental changes in how colleges use that information to help students earn degrees.
Placement testing has long been a dilemma for community colleges, and over the past few decades this crucial gateway to credit-bearing work has swung both open and closed. In the 1970s, responding to students who argued that they essentially had a right to fail, many institutions dropped mandatory placement testing and course prerequisites. The idea, as the researchers Katherine L. Hughes and Judith Scott-Clayton of Columbia University’s Teachers College explain it, was that students were old enough to decide for themselves whether they were ready for college work, and that doing so would only make them more responsible. Maybe they were, and maybe it did, but the new leniency also caused students to fail and drop out in troubling numbers.
Criticism of the relaxed policies came to a head in 1983 with the publication of A Nation at Risk, an alarming federal report that found that high school graduates were not nearly as prepared for postsecondary life as they needed to be. State legislators, who had already started to complain, demanded that standards be set and readiness measured. New Jersey was the first state to require a placement test, an assessment developed by the Educational Testing Service. Officials assumed that 10 to 20 percent of incoming students would fail the test. Instead, according to Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education, 40 percent did. By the late 1990s, any college that did not require a placement test was a rare institution indeed.
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