Millions of Americans are denied the chance to take college-level courses by a downscale version of the SAT.
As measures of basic cognitive skills, tests like the COMPASS and the Accuplacer aren’t bad, say experts like Boylan. But they obviously miss many students who are quite capable of doing college-level work. In part that’s because community colleges tend to use these tests as the main or only determinant of who gets to take credit-bearing courses. They could avoid that by, at the very least, doing what most four-year colleges do, and what the test companies recommend they do: looking at multiple measures of a student’s potential—placement scores, high school grades, recommendations, the fact that a student has already passed college courses. But with state budgets tight and community college classes already oversubscribed, the institutional incentives are to screen students out as quickly and cheaply as possible.
Still, it’s perfectly possible to devise a cost-effective assessment system that would do a much better job of getting the maximum number of students into regular classes. For instance, there are factors beyond cognitive skills that researchers have found to be equal—or better—predictors of college success: attributes like ambition, persistence, willingness to seek help, and a desire to connect with instructors. Some researchers say that the poorer a student’s cognitive skills, the more important these so-called “affective” skills become. Yet only 7 percent of colleges, according to a 2007 survey, collect both affective and cognitive data. This is despite the fact that many relatively cheap measurement tools exist. They include something called the Learning and Study Strategies Inventory (LASSI), an eighty-item assessment that measures things like study skills, motivation, and self-discipline. The combination of an assessment like LASSI, which costs $3.50, and a personal interview with an adviser would produce a far more accurate picture of the applicant, Boylan says, helping schools limit remediation to those who truly need it. If someone falls just below a cut score on the Accuplacer but scores well on the affective assessment, he might best be assigned to a regular course. If the affective assessment and interviews reveal weaknesses, he would likely best be served by remediation.
Even more helpful would be tests that could give more specific and precise information than the Accuplacer or the COMPASS can provide about what students do and do not know. Both testing companies say they are trying to develop more predictive measurements, but according to David T. Conley of the University of Oregon’s Center for Educational Policy Research, placement tests now provide “very little diagnostic information about the specific academic deficiencies that students may have.” Has the student simply forgotten the material and needs only a memory refresher? Or did he never learn the stuff in the first place? The test can’t tell. It also can’t tell if the student needs “a small amount of focused review or a re-teaching of the material from scratch.” In other words, while a test may identify deficiencies, Conley says, it is not particularly useful in helping to fix them.
The clear limitations of placement tests and the abysmal track record of the remediation system have led a growing number of advocates and public officials to call for wholesale reform. Stan Jones, the president of the not-for-profit Complete College America and the former Indiana commissioner of higher education, says he can’t even stand to talk about placement because “the whole system is so awful.” Boylan is just as blunt: “The way these tests are used is awesomely bad.”
The expert consensus is that the problem with the placement system—as with the entire business of remedial education—needs far more than a technical solution. Conley, for one, thinks the very notion of a student being judged as either remedial or college ready presents “a false dichotomy that is in need of fundamental rethinking.” The assumption, he says, should be that all students are college ready and remedial to varying degrees. Thus, he says, a wider range of data should determine their course of study, and readiness should be assessed “as a matter of degrees, not as an absolute.”
Boylan’s ideal system, which would likewise aim for placing the highest possible number of students in regular courses, would use cognitive and affective tests, along with counseling and personal interviews—triangulating, essentially. A student who scored just under the cut might be placed in regular courses and succeed with some tutoring and other support. Students at the low end might need several layers of remediation, but the courses would be targeted to particular weaknesses revealed by placement tests that would be far more diagnostic than the ones used now.
There are promising examples of these ideas being put into practice. One can be found at Austin Peay University, a public four-year institution in Tennessee that admits 90 percent of the students who apply. For years, roughly half of all Austin Peay students were put in remediation, with typically dismal results. In 2007, the university took the bold step of eliminating remediation entirely. Instead of a placement test, underprepared students were given a diagnostic test and enrolled in college-level courses, with the requirement that they spend two hours in a learning laboratory each week, where they received individual tutoring and personalized computer-based instruction tailored to the results of the diagnostic test.
The results were impressive. Before the switch, only 53 percent of students passed developmental math, and only 30 percent completed a for-credit math class within two years. After the elimination of remediation, the percentage of underprepared students completing college-level math more than doubled, to 67 percent. English results were also significant—the percentage of students passing college English increased from 54 percent to 76 percent. Austin Peay saved on the classroom space they had been devoting to remediation, and students ended up saving on tuition because they weren’t paying for remedial courses. Everybody won.
If reforms like these were implemented in all of America’s open-admissions colleges, millions of students who have been swept into ineffective remedial classes by placement tests might be able to move forward with their lives. And these are not just any students. They are young people who worked their way out of bad public high schools from which most students drop out. Or they are adults like Monica Dekany, who, despite false starts, setbacks, and the demands of work and family, are taking the plunge back into college, making time in the mornings and in the evenings when the kids are asleep. Getting a college education is seldom easy for these folks. But the least society can do is not make the task harder than it needs to be.
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