Thanks to recent changes in state law, some Florida community college students could find themselves in the unenviable position of having enough credits to graduate but unable to earn an associate degree.
Last month, Gov. Charlie Crist signed a bill that eliminates the College-Level Academic Skills Test  (CLAST), an assessment given to Florida college students to verify competency in reading, writing and mathematics. By law, all college students in the state must demonstrate their attainment of these three basic competencies to earn an associate degree at a community college, transfer to a four-year institution and ultimately earn a baccalaureate degree.
Though the CLAST will be eliminated July 1 -- at a project cost savings of $800,000 -- there remain four other methods for students to meet these state benchmarks. Most students enrolling in four-year institutions fulfill this requirement by scoring at least a 500 each on the verbal and math sections of the SAT. ACT scores of at least 21 on the English and math sections and at least 22 on the reading section also count.
Aside from testing, a large number of students meet these benchmarks in the classroom by earning at least a 2.5 grade point average in a pair of introductory communications courses and any two mathematics courses. Finally, students with documented learning disabilities may lobby to void the requirement.
These remaining alternatives to the soon-to-be departed CLAST, however, have the potential to strand a number of community college students, who often do not take standardized tests like the SAT or ACT. For instance, students who have passed their introductory communications and mathematics courses with less than a 2.5 GPA would be unable to graduate until they have either re-enrolled in those courses and earned a higher GPA or taken the SAT or ACT and earned an acceptable score.
Judith Bilsky, executive vice chancellor in the Florida Department of Education’s Office of Student and Academic Success, said she did not think a large number of students would be “trapped” by the elimination of the CLAST. Last year, only about 16,000 students in Florida took a portion of the test in order to earn an associate degree or gain admission to a four-year institution, she noted. This is about 20 percent of the more than 80,000 students who graduated from the state’s two- and four-year institutions. Students at four-year institutions were also required to pass the CLAST, if they were not granted a formal waiver by meeting the alternative criteria. Conversely, some community college students who took the CLAST transferred to a four-year institution before they could graduate with an associate degree.
"Our goal is to make sure than no student is disadvantaged or trapped,” said Bilsky of the upcoming change. “We’re working with our colleges on ways we can ensure that students are moving through the pipeline and won’t have to worry about not graduating because of something that is outside of their control.”
In the next week, Bilsky said the Department of Education would seek to broaden the methods by which students can meet the state benchmarks in reading, writing and mathematics. Instead of just accepting a 2.5 GPA in the two specific introductory communications courses, she said the department would push to have any two non-remedial English courses meet the requirement. This change, she argued, would leave very few expected graduates “trapped” without their degrees.
Additionally, Bilsky said the department would also seek to use the community college system’s college placement test as a proxy for the CLAST in the future. She added that the score on the test needed to meet the state’s competency requirements would be “much higher” than the cut score, or the mark below which a student must enroll in remedial work. Using the placement test, she said, would be more cost effective for students than retaking the SAT or ACT, at a cost of only about $10 per test.
Some critics around the state, however, expressed concern at the potential of passing along any additional testing costs to students. Michael Brawer, executive director of the Florida Association of Community Colleges, a non-government group representing the state’s 28 two-year institutions, said he was concerned about any “proprietary replacement” for the CLAST. He also noted that he would like to ensure that any replacement is “equally as valid” in meeting the state-mandated core competencies.
The state community college system, for example, uses College Board’s ACCUPLACER test for placement. In the event that a student does not earn high enough marks to meet the competencies on initial placement, he or she will have to either pass the requisite classes with at least a 2.5 GPA or retake the placement test. The students would be charged for the second administration of the test, unlike the first, which the college pays.
Bracing for the impact of the changes, many community colleges around the state are hoping to administer the CLAST to as many of the students who require it to graduate as possible in the coming weeks. In the near term, this remains one of the only options for institutions as they wait for expanded methods to meet the state’s graduation requirements.
“We expected and expect students nearing graduation and planning to take the CLAST to be negatively impacted by the sudden cancellation of future CLAST administrations,” said Juan Mendieta, spokesman for Miami Dade College, the state’s largest two-year institution. “We reached out to those students to notify them that their last chance to take the paper test … would be last Saturday. We planned for a bigger turnout than usual and saw more students take the test.”
Though expanded alternatives to the CLAST are being discussed in Tallahassee, others around the state expressed some frustration that they were not in place when the announcement to eliminate the CLAST was made.
“There were a lot of people who really weren’t ready to get rid of it,” said Barbara Pippin, special assistant to the president for legislative affairs at Broward College, the state’s second largest community college. “The motivation was, of course, dollars. Still, we hoped there would at least be some discussion as to what should be proposed in its place.”