Many community college systems around the country are just now discovering the lengths to which some of their students will go to avoid remediation.
In a phenomenon test administrators say they have known about for years, some savvy students are deliberately seeking out institutions with lower entrance test benchmarks that will either place them out of remedial coursework or require them to take less of it. Among discussions of ballooning enrollments and constricted budgets, this student tactic was a point of much discussion at last week's meeting of the American Association of Community Colleges.
The practice is considered commonplace in states where there are no standardized “cut scores” or ranges on placements tests for possible remedial education. A policy brief  released last summer by Achieving the Dream -- a national initiative to improve student success at two-year institutions nationwide -- noted that only 19 states have standardized “cut scores” across all of their community colleges. Still, student shopping for lower benchmarks occurs in both regulated and non-regulated state environments. Take the case of Minnesota, for example.
This past fall semester, the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system set common cut scores across all 25 of its community colleges. Prior to this, each institution used various assessments and set its own course placement scores. Now, all of the colleges use ACCUPLACER -- a College Board test -- and must abide by state mandated placement benchmarks.
Kathie Montognese, director of testing services at Hennepin Technical College, said score shopping was rampant at colleges near one another, especially in Minneapolis-St. Paul, where there are a handful of different institutions. She said it was well-known among many prospective nursing students that her institution had a slightly lower “cut score” in reading comprehension than did some of the others in the area. Hennepin's "cut score" was a 72 out of 120 on ACCUPLACER, while some of the other institutions in the area had a higher "cut score" of 78. The large numbers of students interested in entering the nursing field, who as a result took entry tests multiple times, brought this phenomenon to the attention of the area colleges. The standardized "cut score" in reading comprehension for the Minnesota system's community colleges is now a 78.
"It was clear from the testing directors talking together, for example, that some students didn’t like their reading or math score and missed the cut at another institution but made ours,” Montognese said. “Certainly, we knew that students were looking around for the quickest route. But the quickest route doesn’t always help them reach their final destination, which is graduation.”
Now, even though the “cut scores” have been standardized, Montognese said students are still comparing and contrasting other scoring benchmarks. Currently, colleges differ on how much remedial education is required for those deemed to need it. The same deficiency might qualify one student for three remedial courses at one college and two at another -- both paths theoretically designed to produce a student ready for college-level courses. Students who compare institutions, she said, tend to favor those that require them to spend less time in developmental courses.
Montognese noted this student preference was especially evident for those in English as a second language. Students who fail to show English proficiency on a placement test can take up to three developmental ESL courses at Hennepin Tech, while at others in the area, such as Minneapolis Community and Technical College, require as many as six levels of coursework.
“There has been some talk about trying to standardize developmental levels, but we might run into some issues budgetwise,” Montognese said. “Some colleges have more faculty to handle than others. I would think that it would be the next step in this reform.”
The North Carolina Community College System adopted standardized “cut scores” in fall 2007 for all of its 58 institutions. Brad Bostian, an English instructor at Central Piedmont Community College, near Charlotte, said he has noted a phenomenon similar to the one in Minnesota both before and after the recent changes in his state.
“When we had different cutoff scores at different institutions, students would literally drive down the road and try to take the test somewhere else,” Bostian said. “Even today, we don’t have standardized developmental levels. Some have three, some have two and some only have one. I think some students do shop for less remediation. If I were savvy enough I could get out of two levels of remediation. I don’t know how many of them do that, though; all the evidence we have is anecdotal.”
Though there are no active movements to standardize developmental levels in the state to curb this practice, Bostian said any more changes would likely be years away. The system, he noted, must collect data to see whether some remedial policies are more effective than others.
Besides those students shopping around for either lower “cut scores” or less remediation, Bostian is concerned about “remedial avoiders” -- or those who take the placement test but then transfer to a four-year institution so that they do not have to take developmental coursework. In 2000-1, according to data he gathered for his doctoral dissertation, 14 percent of Central Piedmont’s transfers to one local four-year institution fell into this category. Even more illustrative, 42 percent of those developmental students who took the placement test -- it should be noted that many do not -- were considered “remedial avoiders.”
Of those students who successfully transferred to a four-year institution to avoid remediation, Bostian noted that they were older than traditional students and did just as well in college as did their peers who took remedial coursework. He said these traits might also apply to those shopping around for lower “cut scores.”
“There’s this notion that those salmon that swim upstream to spawn are stronger and there’s this process of selecting out,” Bostian said of these students.
The Florida Community College System instituted standardized cut scores more than a decade ago at its 28 colleges. Like Minnesota and North Carolina, however, it does not have standardized remedial levels. Still, not everyone there was familiar with the practice of shopping for "cut scores."
Silvio Rodriguez, director of test administration at Miami Dade College, said the concept was “novel” to him and that such a practice would be difficult in his service area, where there are not other community colleges easily accessible to testing students. He did note, however, that he is aware of students who have tested at multiple places to get around retesting policies, which might limit the number of times a student can take a placement test during a certain time period.
Officials from Minnesota, North Carolina and Florida say that even with their statewide standards, shopping for "cut scores" continues -- online. They acknowledged that students could easily take a college-level course online from another state with a lower placement score and transfer it into their institution, successful avoiding remediation. At the moment, however, none appeared worried about this catching on, given the difficulty of the ruse.
Montognese admitted that a student who passed a college-level course at one institution, even after earning a remedial placement score at another institution, might not have needed the developmental coursework after all. In which case, she noted, the system would have worked.
Montognese, Bostian and Rodriguez were open to the idea of a national standard of placement and remediation but agreed that it would take a lot of work to push such a movement, as there would be debates over methods of assessment. All, however, said the process of shopping “cut scores” was among the more quirky student practices known to testing administrators, and should ideally be curbed.
“It’s funny the lengths some people will go,” Bostian said.