Standardized Placement Tests and Keeping Kids in Our Classes

New York Times Reporter Tamar Lewin has an interesting piece in today’s paper, describing a study that shows large numbers of incoming community college students are incorrectly assigned to remedial classes, based on the results of standardized placement tests. Calling remedial ed a “dead end,” Lewin reports that more than a fourth of students sidetracked into these courses “could have passed college-level courses with a grade of B or higher.” The study also found that high-school grade-point averages would serve as well or better than standardized testing to predict students’ success in various subject areas.

Well. Duh! Certainly on the community-college level, an “A” or “B” high-school senior is likely to be an “A” or “B” college freshman. That isn’t to say the student is particularly well prepared for college-level work: in the land of the blind, the one-eyed student gets the As and Bs. However, it must be said that, like all standardized tests, placement tests prove little more than that at the time the successful candidate sat down in the testing booth, he or she  was well rested, well fed, free of intoxicants, and trained in the art of answering standardized questions.

More disturbing is the discussion of the dropout rate among community college students in general and those assigned to remedial classes in particular. We are told that in most colleges, a majority of recent high-school graduates are placed in remedial classes for which they must pay but which produce no college credit, and that less than a quarter of those who start in such courses complete a two-year degree or transfer to four-year schools.

Maybe instead of “remediation” we should call this process “discouragement.” Certainly, if I were stuck in a remedial course—especially one that required me to pay for the privilege of sitting out a semester with no credit toward graduation—I would be discouraged from continuing. Wouldn’t you? It would be even more disgusting if one had earned passing grades for high-school courses in the subject.

One wonders to what extent remedial courses work as advertised, especially for students who truly are not prepared for basic freshman courses. If the kid was an A, B, or C student in high school, she’s probably going to get at least a B or a C in my comp courses. They’re all so unprepared that “unprepared” doesn’t much matter: hence grade inflation; hence the forwarded-forwarded-forwarded effect among our students.

If the person truly cannot form an idiomatic sentence, honestly does not grasp how to compile a paragraph that makes sense, really doesn’t have a tenth-grade vocabulary…then sure: that person needs help. But if our students have passed their high-school courses and still come to us dumb as posts, one semester in a remedial course isn’t going to teach them what they should have learned in 13 years of K-12 training, any more than one semester of freshman comp is going to fix all they failed to learn about writing a coherent, literate document.

Meanwhile, telling students “we doubt if you’ll succeed here” by putting them in dumbbell English and math courses effectively shows them the door. No wonder they drop: they start out expecting to fail.

If Lewin’s figure is right—“tens of thousands” of students are unnecessarily shunted into remedial courses—it explains the high attrition rates.

Maybe we should be putting fewer instead of more (highly profitable, corporatized) hurdles in front of our students.


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