September/October 2011 How the Other Half Tests

Millions of Americans are denied the chance to take college-level courses by a downscale version of the SAT.

By Susan Headden

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.

Susan Headden , a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a senior writer/editor at Education Sector, a Washington, D.C., think tank.


  • MR on August 29, 2011 2:24 PM:

    I got put into remedial math courses by the ACT years ago while scoring highly on everything else.
    I probably just needed a review or tutoring but ended up having to take two semesters of math before I could take college-level math.
    The first semester especially was a total waste of time. Preliminary reading told me all I needed to know and the rest was just trying to make it through the classes without getting discouraged.

  • TS on August 29, 2011 3:07 PM:

    "2x2 + 3xy - 4y2"

    You mean 2x^2 and 4y^2 where ^ means "raised to the power"? Or is it 2x2 where x stands for multiplication?

    I think you need to fix the layout on this equation. Or is this the way it is shown to test takers?

  • KlP on August 29, 2011 4:17 PM:

    Was the sample algebra question formatted correctly on the test? As it's formatted here (with the exponent on the same line, not in superscript)- I got it wrong at first!

  • HokieAnnie on August 29, 2011 8:49 PM:

    Glad I'm not the only one who was left pondering the equation. It would be mean to have a test where the "right" answer is not the right answer!

  • Steven on August 29, 2011 10:14 PM:

    Took me a few tries as well. (a) is the only possibility as reading the equation in different manners doesn't yield and of the other available choices. I guess it's checking to see if you paid attention to the fact that y is a negative number.

  • Washington Monthly on August 30, 2011 5:31 PM:

    Our apologies. It was squared. We've fixed the formatting.

  • Zagrobelny on August 31, 2011 3:50 PM:

    I work for a community college and the students I see every day, even the ones who have passed our version of the Accuplacer, are woefully unprepared for college level work and are dragging down the quality of the education for everyone else. The solution isn't to do away with remedial courses, that will just make the regular courses even worse. Students here can easily circumvent remedial courses anyway with SAT scores or previous coursework. (I don't know why that school made Dekany take remedial work when she already had college credit - that's outrageous.) The solution is to make remedial courses that work instead of assigning them to green professors who want to be other things.

  • N. R. Epps on August 31, 2011 5:01 PM:

    Just completed a decade long stastical study of graduation rates at my community college; the students who complete their degrees the fastest are foreign students with visas, who took ESL (ie. Non credit English comp courses) classes when they first enrolled at the college. So they began in what's considered "remedial, pre-college." The student cohort who took the longest to graduate were native born , native English speakers who graduated from the city's school system. Non city residents who graduated from non city high schools were in the middle of the range.

    There are many, many things wrong with public (higher) education in this country, and poverty, lack of reliable child care, working while attending full time, and especially the lack of a genuine credible high school preparation are all part of the mix. the placement tests are bad, and an example of privatization , funneling public tax dollars into private pockets, when, of course, your proposed solution of good advisement, tutoring when needed, and a personalized evaluation is way too expensive for today's cash strapped institutions.

  • paul on September 01, 2011 9:17 AM:

    To what extent is something like this going to be driven by Parkinson's law? Without the remedial section in a college, you're going to have a smaller overall operation, with less money passing through.

  • Lois Leveen on September 01, 2011 11:46 AM:

    Some students arrive at college less prepared than others--that fact won't change. But what needs to change is how we serve all students. The returning student, who hasn't taken a math class in years, may score the same as the student whose English is so limited that she/he couldn't understand the test questions, and the student who is straight out of high school and has always felt overwhelmed in math classes. But each of these three students needs different supports to succeed. And currently, most placement procedures and coursework/student supports don't address the differences. Combine that with the fact that developmental courses are often taught by untenured/non-tenure track faculty, who often have no professional development to hone their skills for teaching these students, and even if they are marvelously motivated and insightful about teaching are least able to make significant changes in the departments and institutions where they work, and it seems none of it adds up to "the right answer" for millions of students. Or for any of us, really, since stagnating college graduation rates will be a major limitation on the US economy.

  • Lolly on September 01, 2011 11:53 AM:

    At the community college where I taught, the problem with the remedial courses was not so much with "green" professors as with the experienced professors who had an astoundingly condescending attitude towards the remedial students. Some of them treated remedial English students like kindergartners, with their grade based on whether they completed hundreds of sheets of sentence exercises and had them checked off by tutors.

    When I taught some of these classes, I had students who were repeated them for the 2nd or 3rd time who were clearly capable of doing work at the next level or beyond. To a person, they all said they had failed despite getting passing scores on their actual writing work because they hadn't gotten all their worksheets checked off.

    I can only imagine how many students gave up after going through that experience. My own philosophy on these classes was to pass students who were clearly ready to write at the next level. I tossed the worksheets entirely, even though they were supposedly a mandatory part of the class (shhh! don't tell anybody).

    So--treating these students like adults and focusing on getting them ready for more advanced classes would be a start on improving the situation.

    (hope this gets posted in the right place this time!)

  • Mary Forston on September 02, 2011 10:17 AM:

    What is the relevance of the equation in the article? How would someone use such an equation in every day life? Does such an equation really help anyone figure out how to feed millions or foster peace? Does knowing the answer mean you will be a thoughtful, genuine person with the ability to solve life's real problems?

    I remembered my order of operations but still came up with one of the other answers in the choices, of course I have not had to use such equations in my work life for the past 40 years. To assume that it was fairly easy to figure out is part of the problem with how we teach math and science. There is such a thing as math anxiety and labeling someone who doesn't see the relevance of an x or a y as "stupid" or "in need of remediation" is not helping. This attitude on the part of math enthusiasts and educators squelches enthusiasm for learning. I wonder how many politicians would come up with the right answer to the equation? Would it matter if they did?

  • Sothe on September 04, 2011 6:43 PM:

    So, in essence, you are blaming the schools instead of the applicants who failed to study at all before taking a placement test?

    If you're so lazy that you either didn't bother to study, or so lazy that you didn't bother researching enough to know that you SHOULD study, how is that the fault of the school?

    As an aside, I took an ACT test, without studying, a decade after high school and didn't have to take any remedial courses. Quit blaming the system and crying to Mother Government to come make it more "fair". Stand up, take responsibility for your own damn actions and DO SOMETHING FOR YOURSELF!

  • Jamie Wellik on September 05, 2011 12:17 PM:

    Too scattershot:

    The anecdote that underlies the article was a woman out of school for more than fifteen years before taking an assessment test. Plus, she took it at an institution which wouldn't honor some of her previous credits and "A" work ("outrageous" is an appropriate term cited by the first commenter.)

    I can accept that college admissions is a system that may be somewhat broken, but the premise that it is disabling students who are otherwise prepared for college work is hard to grasp.

    I didn't see any reference to the 2010 "Divided We Fail" study from California where the article starts. This study

    " tracked more than 250,000 degree-seeking California community college students over six years and found fewer than a third - 30 percent- had transferred to a four-year school or earned the vocational certificate or associate degree they expected."

    And BRAVO to Austin Peay University for treating students like individuals and requiring two hours a week of individualized tutoring and time in a learning lab. Granted, this is a four year institution, but their willingness to jettison standard practices and implement a hands-on solution is refreshing.

  • Rip on September 06, 2011 11:13 AM:

    I did well in math at school, but it's been 30 years. I'm sure the only reason I was able to get the answer was because I've spent many evenings the last two years helping my daughter with her algebra homework.

    What I find most objectionable is not that colleges ask potential students to take these tests, as I'm sure any are in need of remedial courses, but that they are not given an opportunity to prepare, especially as it may have been a matter of years since they had to answer such questions. It wasn't until I started helping my kids with homework that I realized how much I had forgotten.

  • Crissa on September 12, 2011 10:21 PM:

    These tests are timed, as well. Coming right out of two years of courses at university-level, I had to take one of these tests to get 'placed' at the community college I downgraded to (because of lack of funding) while my previous credits were in accreditation limbo (IE, the campus I went to wasn't directly listed so all my credits were in doubt.

    I've dreaded these tests ever since, and I've even tutored students in the remedial classes - hundreds of hours of longhand basic mathematics to get anywhere I care to be. And it's not as though these students don't know the coursework - though many of the instructors are so swamped, they never have time to explain or actually teach when they don't - but the ones who don't have near to no chance of completing these courses.

    Lastly, take a look at how many of these remedial courses are full or repeated dozens of times with filled schedules compared to simple Calc classes at the same college. How are students supposed to get through remedial courses which aren't designed to teach, but to obstruct? And this goes double for the many who actually need it.

    But I don't dare take those tests. They're horrible little monsters, always given only a few times a year, at strict and inconvenient times.

  • Steve on September 24, 2011 7:57 PM:

    As a "middle aged adult" I'm somewhat taken aback by the notion that many in my cohort would have trouble evaluating a simple mathematical expression such as the one given in the article above.

    This sort of innumeracy, if true, is probably part of the reason why so many of us are stuck with huge underwater mortgages and staggering credit card debt.

    We can't do simple arithmetic.

  • MFunkibut on October 11, 2011 5:39 PM:

    My wife teaches 'learning support' math at a community college that uses the COMPASS to score incoming students.

    She doesn't see alot of students who really should be in college algebra and have been 'misplaced' by the COMPASS.

    Instead she see students who cannot subtract reliably, do not know basic multiplication and are completely incapable of using fractions and percentages.

    Their learning simply stopped in the second grade or third grade.

    And very few have the skills [like fortitude] to do any better. Some do - but the percentage is small.

    And were we to combine the LASSI with the COMPASS and then to say "Sorry - you're too stupid and unmotivated to succeed in college so don't waste your money" the social fabric would unravel and there would be rioting in the streets.

    Instead, we decided to allow these "students" to waste a little money to figure out they can't do college.

    Because for a host of reasons - they can't.

  • apple on October 17, 2011 1:04 AM:

    In the early stages of a relationship with a guy 25 years my junior (I am 45, he is 20), when we met on cougar dating site **Couga*ra .( 0 m** I have to say that the comment about these guys unable to get with a girl their own age has to be way off. My man is very sexy, hot and popular and I¡¯m amazed that he wants to be with me¡­but also believe he does. My main concern is not other people but my
    family of 3 children age 10 to 17, do any others have stories of ¡°what the family thinks¡±?

  • Beth on October 18, 2011 7:54 PM:

    We use Accuplacer at our community college and we find it to be fairly unreliable. This semester I am teaching our lowest level developmental English course. I give them a diagnostic writing test on the second day of class. I discovered that about 5 or 6 out of 25 students clearly belonged in a much higher level English class. Another 4 or 5 probably belonged in an ESL class. So basically Accuplacer got just over half of the placements right. In what warped world is that good? I asked my students who clearly belonged in English 101 why they thought they scored so poorly on Accuplacer, and many said they didn't realize that the test counted for anything and didn't take it seriously. I think if the students come in actually prepared to take an exam, it might produce better results.

  • Jenny on October 20, 2011 9:03 AM:

    I think there are some students that can make it without the the DE courses. But without prior knowledge of the student and proper thorough advising session, it would not be successful. Also, there is too much control on the DE programs, where institutions cannot make these kind of decisions for these unique students. I would like to see the students that are referred to DE, make take an additional test that narrows down what the student's weaknesses are. That way the DE department at that college can decide if the student can be successful.

    As a DE Math instructor, articles like these, make it seem like we are purposely placing students in DE courses. When truly the 'good' DE instructors are the cheer leaders for the students to get them through successfully and quickly.

    Ironically enough, for the same thousands of students that got through and were successful, there are more thousands that were not successful in the DE because they were placed too high.

  • Milan Moravec on October 20, 2011 10:13 PM:

    University of California discrimination against Californians. Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) displaces Californians qualified for public university education at Cal. for a $50,600 payment and a foreign passport. Need for transparency at UC Berkeley has never been so clear.

    UC Berkeley, ranked # 70 Forbes, is not increasing enrollment. Birgeneau accepts $50,600 FOREIGN students at the expense of qualified instate Californians.

    UC Regent Chairwoman Lansing and President Yudof agree to discriminate against Californians for foreigners. Birgeneau, Yudof, Lansing need to answer to Californians.

    Opinions make a difference; email UC Board of Regents marsha.kelman@ucop.edu

  • Jerry Shaw on October 24, 2011 1:21 AM:

    at the end of the day, it's the quality of education that matters..some of the richest men today even flunked school, although I am not promoting that..it would be best if credentials can be transferred for a student who wants to pursue some Allied Health Career.

  • Max on November 01, 2011 6:53 PM:

    What is most shocking is that over 70% of unprepared students can pass a regular college course. There is a bigger problem with the regular classes than the remedial classes (our college now calls these "college preparatory" classes).