Testing the Testing for Remedial Courses

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Surprised and annoyed.

That’s how some youths at Community College of Baltimore County say they felt when they found out they had to take a test to register to attend the college.

The youths didn’t have sufficiently high SAT or ACT scores or previous college work that would enable them to bypass remediation, so they had to take a placement exam known as the Accuplacer, which assesses their skills in reading, math and, to a certain extent, writing.

When the youths found out they had tested at a level that required them to enroll in remedial courses – despite the fact that many had earned Cs, Bs and even As in high school – the youths began to voice complaints.

This is one of the postsecondary realities for youths that is discussed in a new working paper from the National Center for Postsecondary Research. The paper is titled Case Studies of Three Community Colleges: The Policy and Practice of Assessing and Placing Students in Developmental Education Courses.

In many ways, the paper is one that wrestles with the longstanding question of whether youths are failing the educational system or whether the educational system is failing youths.

Intuitively, we know this is not an either-or proposition and that the answer – as in so many other either-or propositions – is really somewhere in between. But the paper illuminates some of the finer points and nuances of the matter from the standpoint of policy and practice.

For instance, when youths who took the above-referenced test failed to score high enough to bypass remediation, they used to be able to retake the test. Now, in an effort to “streamline” the process, retakes are only allowed for those who scored a few points below the cutoff level.

Why any of this even matters is because the researchers who wrote the paper found several problems inherent in the policies and practices of the college and two others examined in the report – Texas’ Houston Community College and Merced Community College in Merced, Calif. – regarding how students are assessed for and placed in either college-credit or remedial courses, more commonly referred to recently as developmental courses.

For instance, the researchers, in looking at the score requirements at the colleges, found “inconsistency in the standard of college readiness as well as in the boundaries defining various levels and types of skill deficiency.

“We also observed firsthand the high-stakes nature of the placement tests, which measure narrow sets of skills at a single (and potentially problematic) point in time,” the paper states.

Researchers also heard from college faculty that the tests are regarded as “irrelevant to instruction.

“Finally,” the researchers continue, “we noted that the colleges tend to have inconsistent processes for developing and revising policies and practices related to assessment and instruction.”

Of course, in an ideal world, youth would have the college entrance exams or prior college experience they needed to bypass remediation. However, given the academic shortcomings of many youths, regardless of whether it’s due to inferior educational experiences before college or some individual failing, taking a fresh or even a second look at assessment and placement practices and policies seems like a worthwhile thing. Remedial education is a costly and time-consuming. To the extent that educators can make sure that remediation is being done effectively and is limited to those who truly need it,  cash-strapped colleges and students have a lot to gain.