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Community colleges set a low bar for students during their first year of enrollment, with lax academic standards in literacy and mathematics, according to a new study from the National Center on Education and the Economy. And many students fail to meet even those minimal expectations.

The study released today uncovered “disturbingly low standards among community college instructors,” said Marc S. Tucker, president of the center, a nonprofit group that focuses on academic assessment and standards across systems of education. “It’s clear that we’re cheating our students.”

Inadequate standards hurt students’ chances of succeeding in the job market, according to the report. But there are no simple fixes for this problem, the study said. That’s because community colleges likely are reacting to the inadequate academic preparation of incoming students, a majority of whom require remedial coursework in college.

“To raise the standards in our community colleges without concurrently doing what is necessary to enable our graduating high school students to meet the minimal standards currently in place would be irresponsible,” the report said. “Such a policy stance will only make a tough situation worse. So action on both fronts is clearly urgent.”

The research gives a particularly in-depth view of academic expectations, according the center. That’s because it drew from a wide review of syllabuses, textbooks, tests and graded assignments from seven community colleges located in seven different states. Researchers picked the colleges to represent a broad swath of the sector. The sample colleges enroll students from urban, rural and suburban areas, with enrollments ranging from 3,000 to 30,000 students.

Other studies of academic standards at community colleges were based on surveys and focus groups with faculty members, which are “notoriously faulty” methods, officials from the center said.

The new research looked at academic requirements of credit-bearing courses in eight of the most popular programs at the colleges, including accounting, automotive technology, computer programming and a general studies track, among others. The courses were aimed at first-year students.

The reading and writing skills students must demonstrate are not very complex or cognitively demanding, the study found. The reading complexity of the college texts scrutinized by researchers was usually at the 11th -or 12th-grade level. Instructors generally made limited use of those texts and rely heavily on aids such as PowerPoint presentations and videos to help students understand key points.

Testing was similarly light, according to the research.

“We found that most assessments in community colleges come in the form of multiple-choice questions that demand very little in the way of complex reading skills and no writing,” the study found.

Bridging the Gap

Mathematics standards are a slightly different story. Most entering community college students need to have a good grasp on math concepts from middle school, particularly arithmetic, ratios and expressions. Students do not have those concepts down, given math course completion rates at community colleges. However, the study found that common high school math tracks, like Algebra II, are of limited value to most community college students (with the exception being the relatively small number who take calculus and work in STEM field jobs).

The bottom line is that high schools aren’t teaching the right math for the two-year path, Tucker said, and are failing to help students master the math they need to succeed in community college.

That’s a large and growing problem, as community colleges enroll almost half of the nation’s undergraduates. And the math disconnect between K-12 and community colleges just one of several standards gaps the study argues should be closed.

The cycle of blame for sagging academic achievement typically flows downward, said Tucker. Community colleges blame high schools for the academic shortcomings of their incoming students. High schools blame middle schools and so on, he said. And they all have valid arguments. He said even critics who say teacher preparation programs are lacking probably have a point.

“Each one of these actors basically seems helpless,” said Tucker.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative could help better align standards between community colleges and high schools, according to the report. But Tucker said the solution to inadequate college and job readiness will need to be ambitious, and involve deeper coordination of educators who work on all stages of students' path from grade school to college.

“Who has to do something here?” Tucker said. “The answer is all those people.”

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