Rush to Judgment?

Not such great news from Paul Fain at Inside Higher Ed:

Large numbers of community college students are being placed into remedial courses they don’t need, according to new studies that questions the value of the two primary standardized tests two-year colleges use to place students: the COMPASS and the ACCUPLACER.

I find this news surprising. I taught both remedial and first-year English at two different community colleges (as an adjunct, like Professor X, who was called “an academic hit man” by the NYT, though I don’t endorse nor share all of his opinions and “lemony plaintiveness,” which you can read about here).

My teaching career was short-lived, but I loved teaching at community colleges. I loved most of my students. The young ones made me laugh. The older ones worked hard. (Some of the young ones worked hard, too–but the older ones were clearly on a dedicated mission to improve their lives, and having worked many years at jobs beneath their abilities, had identified education as the highway to heaven a better life.) They all of them sometimes surprised me with their storytelling–in a good way, once they figured out they could be themselves in their writing. In fact, I often wish I could have the opportunity and the financial independence (teaching jobs in this coastal area are as highly sought after as they are poorly paid, it’s such a privilege to live near the beach) to allow me to return to the classroom.

However, the students in my remedial classes definitely belonged there. Their need for remediation was so great that at first, I wasn’t quite sure what to do with them. Truly, I had seen better writing from fourth-graders–and I don’t mean fourth-grade prodigies, I just mean regular little fourth-graders. My students in the remedial classes could not write a coherent sentence–even a simple declarative one–and so that’s where we started. By the end of the semester, many would be writing decent paragraphs. Not all. Not even most. I don’t know if they were ready to go on to college-level classes in every respect, but even the ones who still needed improvement were more ready than they had been. But a lot of them had dropped out by then, too. That’s the unfortunate nature of the beast.

Maybe 25% of the first-year English students were second-language learners. These were the ones that troubled me most. (Except that one really smart girl who had to bring her baby to class because her childcare arrangements kept falling apart. I worried about her a lot, too.) They didn’t understand me when I talked, so during class, they would pull out calculators and work on assignments from other classes until the weight of peer pressure (I would stop talking and look at them and the other students would fidget and grumble) bowed them into submission, and they would sit and look at the floor praying for release from what must have been unbearable tedium.

I don’t know how the second-language learners were able to pass the placement tests, but pass they did. Their research papers were often bought from those sleazy Internet sites. It didn’t take much detective work to figure that out; I always had my students write a lot in class.

This was a long time ago, though, at the very beginning of the commencement of my work in assessment (so I had no idea about and even less interest in the placement tests) and all is shrouded in mystery. Anyone who’s ever taught the basics at a community college will probably agree with the necessity of some kind of placement tests. Grades are an insufficient and often wildly inaccurate measure; some of my remedial students reported achieving As and Bs all through high school, which achievement must have been the result of their brute charm, rather than any mastery of academic content.

According to the author of the study, “students who ignored a remedial placement and instead enrolled directly in a college- level class had slightly lower success rates than those who placed directly into college- level, but substantially higher success rates than those who complied with their remedial placement, because relatively few students who entered remediation ever even attempted the college-level course.”

I’m going to spend more time with this study. Maybe there is the potential for flawed logic in the leap to “this raises questions not only about the effectiveness of remedial instruction, but also about the entire process by which students are assigned to remediation.”

Sure, I’m open to that possibility. But there are other possibilities that may be overlooked in the rush to indict. What if the students who ignore the remediation recommendation are the self-selected most highly motivated do-or-die students? What if the students who follow the remediation recommendation are the ones who don’t have the time, interest, inclination, motivation to slog through years of night classes while working full-time?

Just something to think about. I have no dog in this fight. If the tests do not do what they are supposed to do, by all means, let’s use a measure that is accurate and fair to students.

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