Community college placement falters

October 16, 2011

The U.S. community college course-placement system is a mess. That includes the many well-regarded two-year colleges in the Washington area.

You want to stop reading now, don’t you? My page-view totals and e-mail traffic indicate readers move on quickly — who’s Valerie Strauss going after today? — whenever they see the words “community college.”

In the Internet age, we writers must respect your choices. For many people, Harvard is a more intriguing subject than Howard Community College. But keep in mind that at this moment, nearly half of all U.S. undergraduates are attending community colleges. The fact that millions of those students are having trouble getting the courses they want is worthy of attention.

A few weeks ago, I told the story of Monica Dekany, a California mom who, because she failed a community college placement test, was forced to take remedial classes for courses in which she had earned credit elsewhere and, as officials eventually conceded, didn’t need. Susan Headden revealed this in a Washington Monthly exposé of the sorry state of remedial (the schools prefer “developmental”) education.

Could Dekany have wasted thousands of dollars in the same way at Washington area community colleges? It depends. At Montgomery College, Anne Arundel Community College and Howard Community College, her previous credits would have spared her the placement test. At the 75,000-student Northern Virginia Community College, the second-largest two-year school in the United States, the English department would say okay, but not the math department.

“Many students forget their mathematics skills if not used for a period of time, and the tests identify if that is the case,” said George Gabriel, NVCC vice president for institutional research, planning and assessment.

All of the local two-year colleges I surveyed were aware that new research is forcing them to justify remediation. Half to two-thirds of their incoming students must pay for no-credit catch-up courses before they are allowed to take credit courses in those subjects.

This requirement for remediation is contradicted by a study of thousands of community college students. Those who found ways to take for-credit courses despite flunking placement tests passed the courses 71 percent of the time. Headden said that was close to the 77 percent passing rate for all students in those courses.

Administrators at local community colleges said they do not think the Dekany debacle could happen on their campuses. Their academic advisers and professors can waive remedial work when other data, such as professors’ own tests, contradict the results of standardized placement exams. They know of no students forced to pay for courses they didn’t need, although one instructor at NVCC said that “with the number of students we serve, just about anything can happen.”

Nearly all campuses in the Washington area are trying to better prepare students for placement tests and make remedial courses more effective and less time-consuming. They are giving practice placement tests to high school students. They are creating shorter remedial courses that cover only those skills new students lack. Prince George’s Community College has a 100-station computer lab to help.

Most local college administrators don’t think they could eliminate remedial courses in favor of extra tutoring and other after-class assistance, as Austin Peay State University did, because most of the Tennessee school’s students, unlike theirs, are full time. But they are trying that approach with some remedial students. The University of the District of Columbia Community College wants to eliminate remedial courses entirely.

Remedial instructors said they are being unfairly criticized despite helping students who are far behind. “No one but us knows the students, but who is listening to us?” a teacher at NVCC said, according to Gabriel.

That is a good question. Remedial educators need to be involved with the changes. With so much in flux, students also must ask many questions about their options as they start community college. These institutions, I am learning, are much more complex and important than most people think.

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