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The Community College Placement Mess

Newspaper reporters, a group to which I belonged until recently, usually don’t write about old reports, unless of course the documents have been suppressed for years by nefarious government minions. If a reporter tells her editor she has found a neat piece of research from 2007 in the bottom of her drawer, the editor will tell her it isn’t news and advise that she put a calendar in her cubicle.

We columnists, on the other hand, are free to roam the past, particularly when we stumble across something as remarkable as “Investigating the Alignment of High School and Community College Assessments in California,” a 41-page report by Richard S. Brown & David N. Niemi, published by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in June 2007.

I know. The title is sleep-inducing. But for the millions of people who care about community colleges -- including the nearly half of all U.S. college students who attend them -- it is a must-read.

You are wondering: Why haven’t you heard about it before and why am I writing about it so long after its appearance? Those are easy questions to answer. We education writers, with rare exceptions, don’t care about community colleges and don’t cover them. The only reason this report caught my eye is that Stanford education and business professor Michael Kirst sent it to me. It was so intriguing I was jarred out of my usual apathy about two-year colleges.

I have wondered, without ever stirring myself to investigate, how community colleges decide who gets to take their for-credit courses, the ones that can put a student on a path to a degree, and who will be consigned to their remedial courses, which earn no credit but still cost money to take. Community college courses are inexpensive, I know, a pittance compared with tuition at Georgetown or Johns Hopkins or Duke, but many community college students are barely making ends meet, so the $96-per-credit tuition at Prince George’s Community College, for instance, is serious money to them. Remedial courses cost less, but they still take both time and money.

The 2007 report by Brown and Niemi, testing experts at the University of Southern California and UCLA respectively, confirmed my guess. Community colleges in California, like everywhere else, give placement tests to incoming students. If you make a certain score, you can take the for-credit course. If not, it’s remedial education for you. There are, I gather, chances to appeal, but students new to higher education, from families with few or no college graduates, tend not to know that.

I assumed that a big state like California with long experience running community colleges (both of my parents attended what were then called California junior colleges in the 1930s) would have a well-proven system of placement tests and qualifying scores that was fair to everyone. Brown and Niemi startled me by revealing this to be far from the truth. They looked at California’s 109 community college campuses and found 94 different placement assessments. Try to enroll in two different community colleges, and the chances are that not only will you be given different placement tests, but the magic number of right answers that gets you into for-credit courses will also be different.

This is a problem, for California and the many other states that have similarly chaotic systems. A student who qualifies for credit courses at one community college could, conceivably, fail to qualify for credit courses at the community college in the next town with the same score on the same test (if by some weird chance they gave the same test). That important moment in his life might be decided by a few points, conceivably, at least in some cases, forcing him to spend money for a course he probably didn’t need.

I was surprised that the community colleges, and their students, were tolerating such a situation, because so far they are not having much success in qualifying new students for credit classes. Over 70 percent of them are forced to take remedial math, and 42 percent must take remedial English.

In their paper, Brown and Niemi closely analyze the placement tests to see whether they match the standards for high school learning in California. It turns out that they do, but this is small comfort, because so few of the students who show up at community college have mastered those standards. In 2006, they report, only 46 percent of students tested proficient on California’s Summative High School Mathematics test, and only 36 percent were proficient on the Grade 11 English Language Arts test.

The high schools have to do a better job, a frequent topic of this column. But it would help if the community colleges could get together and decide on a set of tests, and a consistent set of passing scores, so students sent off to remedial work have a clearer idea of how much they have to improve. I would also like to hear more about efforts to get students near the passing mark over this hump more quickly and cheaply. The data show that students consigned to remedial courses -- which can be dreary -- are far less likely to succeed in community college than those who start for-credit courses right away.

Terri Carbaugh, vice chancellor for communications for the California Community Colleges, said the state is looking at the issues raised by Brown and Niemi. She said state officials agree that a standardized system might not only help students but save money. She said some schools already provide quick refresher courses to students close to passing the placement tests, but others do not.

The greater problem, clearly, is the large number of students arriving at community college with no chance of passing any placement tests. Brown and Niemi say “one suggestion for improving the disjunction between high school and community college is to make clear to students early in their educational careers, perhaps as early as middle school, what is expected of them upon enrollment at the community colleges by developing continuity across the high school, community college and four-year college systems.”

Exactly. One goal could be a more consistent series of placement tests, and a greater effort to help those close to passing. That would give the placement system more clarity, and make it easier to see what must be done to help those students who need the most help.

By Washington Post editors  | June 19, 2009; 5:00 AM ET
Categories:  Trends  | Tags:  community college  
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I have had an experience recently with a community college placement test, the Accuplacer. My son took it to see where he fell in the spectrum of kids taking Latin in high school taught by the community college.

It was illuminating for both him, and me, the mom. He was able to see what of his education was valued by the community college, and what was not. He had no idea all those English terms (homonym, protagonist, etc.) really do matter.

There is research out there showing Accuplacer's correlation to the SAT as well. It only cost $10, and could be a valuable wake up for the kids and teachers.

By the way, our high school is on the cutting edge of figuring out how to economically provide an expanded curriculum serving the specialized interests of a few. Kids get college credit for these classes, which is a great cost saver. And it is real credit, not the "maybe you'll get credit, maybe you won't" of AP and IB. Partnerships between high school and community colleges will grow, I predict.

Posted by: Lizz1 | June 19, 2009 12:19 PM | Report abuse

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