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Class Struggle
In-depth coverage: Education Page |  The Answer Sheet
Posted at 12:03 PM ET, 09/08/2011

Where community colleges go wrong

Susan Headden begins her eye-opening piece in the September/October issue of the Washington Monthly with the unsettling story of Monica Dekany, a California mom barred from taking courses at a local community college for no good reason.

Like most of America’s two-year colleges, Golden West College in Huntington Beach asked her to take a short, computerized placement test. The college used the most popular one, called Accuplacer. When her score was below the level the college set for its for-credit courses, she was shunted to remedial courses that earned no credit but which she still had to pay for. The college’s placement system ignored the fact that she had already passed similar for-credit courses at other colleges years before.

For Dekany, the remedial courses were a breeze. Their instructors saw she had been misplaced and helped her get around the rules. One professor even helped her sign up for a for-credit math course at another college when Golden West insisted she needed more remediation.

Now, Headden reports, Dekany is “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 a year.”

I have written about problems with the community college placement system, including new research indicating the remedial courses often do no good.

But Headden, a senior writer/editor at the Education Sector think tank in the District, explains the issue better than anyone ever has. Many who read her piece will be outraged, and want community colleges — which educate nearly half of the undergraduates in the country — to do something about it.

But will they? Most of them are struggling with budget cuts and more applicants than they can handle. Education writers like me rarely report what they are doing. We prefer to pay attention to the upper crust four-year schools that readers have heard of and yearn for their children to attend.

Still, Headden rips apart all the excuses for inaction. “The remedial placement process is ground zero for college noncompletion in America,” she says. “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 fundamental changes in how colleges use that information to help students earn degrees.”

I am among those who complain that four-year colleges put too much emphasis on the SAT or ACT in admitting students. Headden says people like me are ignoring the fact that placement tests like Accuplacer, owned by the College Board, and COMPASS, administered by ACT, impose higher stakes on millions of would-be college students than even the infamous SAT.

“When students apply to selective colleges,” Headden says, “they’re evaluated based on high school transcripts, extracurricular activities, teacher recommendations, and other factors alongside their SAT scores. In open admission 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.”

As I noted in my last column on community colleges, most of their applicants don’t know how important their placement tests are. Guidance published by the College Board tells them they can’t really fail a placement test, even though from the student’s point of view that is not true. “Because they don’t know what’s coming, most students don’t prepare for the tests,” Headden notes, “even though studies have shown that a review course can raise scores enough to place students at a higher remedial level or keep them out of remediation altogether.”

Her analysis also applies to many four-year colleges that accept nearly all applicants and use placement tests to see who will have to pay for remedial courses that earn no credit.

Headden unearthed a study I had not seen that shows that tens of thousands of community college students who found a way to take for-credit courses despite flunking the placement tests passed the courses 71 percent of the time. That was close to the 77-percent passing rate for all students who took those for-credit courses.

Experts told Headden that tests or interviews that calibrate students’ ambition, persistence and willingness to seek help and connect with instructors can identify which students are good bets to pass the for-credit course despite bad placement test scores. Austin Peay University, a four-year state college in Tennessee that admits 90 percent of applicants, found when it eliminated remedial courses in favor of extra tutoring and other after-class assistance, the passing rate in its college-level math course for new students doubled to 67 percent.

I know several well-regarded community colleges that use Accuplacer and similar tests. I will ask them what they think of what appear to be their bankrupt admissions systems. I will let you know what they say.

By  |  12:03 PM ET, 09/08/2011

 
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