Community college students arrive uninformed and unprepared to take a battery of tests that assign them to either college-level or remedial classes – high-stakes exams that could have a profound impact on their future.
That's the finding of a new report by WestEd [PDF], an independent research organization based in San Francisco.
The report found that less than half of the colleges surveyed even provide practice tests for students. And even when practice tests are available, many students don't know they are available or don't think they should prepare for them.
Perhaps most importantly, most students who took the tests in math and English did not understand that their performance on the test would decide what classes they could take, whether they could begin earning college credits and how long it would take for them to complete their planned course of study.
Why is this important?
Because once students are assigned to remedial, noncredit classes, the odds of making it to higher-level credit courses are extremely low.
Only 25 percent of students who start in a basic-skills reading class even attempt a transfer-level English course, according to a 2007 National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education report [PDF]. For students in basic math classes, the outcome is even worse: Only 10 percent ever attempt a transfer-level class. In fact, "those who begin at the lowest levels of basic skills are unlikely to achieve a degree or transfer to a university."
The poor performance of most students on these assessment tests is at least one reason that only 30 percent of community college students seeking an associate degree or wishing to transfer to a four-year college achieve their goals within six years. (These and other findings were reported in a CSU Sacramento study released this week.)
For many students, remedial classes are essential. But the WestEd report strongly suggests that with more preparation and knowledge about the importance of the placement tests, many more students would pass them and earn the right to take college-level transfer courses. That in turn would considerably improve their chances of succeeding in college.
The entire assessment picture is complicated by the fact that each of California's 112 community college campuses decides what test to administer. Most colleges use the College Board's ACCUPLACER to assess students' abilities in math and English, but many administer their own tests. According to the 2007 report cited above, "nearly 100 different examinations are used for placement purposes across the state."
Another complicating factor is that the scores for determining whether a student is placed in a remedial class also vary from college to college. "Some of the students we interviewed had received different placements at two different colleges based on the same test scores," the WestEd report concluded. "Such variation in cut scores can send mixed signals to high school students about what qualifies as college readiness."
Even after students take the test, "they remain confused … throughout their college experience." Many feel that they are stuck in basic skills courses "with no way to advance more quickly even if they are motivated to do so … Both students and counselors voiced concerns that many students in such predicaments drop out."
What, then, should be done? Some of the recommendations include tying the tests more closely to the high school curriculum, assessing students while they are still in high school and providing summer boot camps for incoming students. Beyond that, high school students should get clear information about the placement tests that await them. That in turn will mean coming up with a more uniform set of tests and comparable cut-off scores to replace the confusing patchwork system that exists across the state and effectively traps many students into low-level classes from which they will never escape.