The growing crisis of students arriving at college unprepared to do college-level work has led to plenty of finger-pointing between high school and college educators. But two community colleges have learned that better collaboration with local high schools may be the best way to dramatically reduce the number of students who fall into the quagmire of remedial coursework.
Long Beach City College has worked closely with the Long Beach Unified School District so it can experiment with using high school grades to help determine whether incoming students have remedial needs -- a shift from instead relying heavily on standardized placement tests. And according to newly available data from the college, an initial group of 1,000 students from Long Beach high schools who were placed with this new method were far more likely to take and pass credit-bearing, transfer-level courses at the college than their peers the previous year.
For example, 53 percent of the group took transfer-level English courses in their first semester, while only 5.5 percent of students from the same high school district took the courses the previous year – meaning they were 10 times more likely to jump directly into credit-bearing English. And their passage rate of 62 percent was roughly the same as the college's typical passage rate in English.
Fully 60 percent of the students in the program , which is dubbed “Promise Pathways,” placed into transfer-level English courses, compared to 11 percent of the college’s overall student population.
Complete College America, which has been a vocal advocate  for remedial reforms around the country, applauded Long Beach City College for its “comprehensive and thoughtful” approach to determining the readiness of new students.
“Their impressive results should add urgency to efforts to end badly broken placement practices that condemn students to college futures based on high-stakes tests for which they have little preparation,” said Tom Sugar, senior vice-president for Complete College America, in an e-mail.
South Texas College has taken a different route, but with similarly impressive results. The college, which is located in the border town of McAllen and, like Long Beach City College, serves large numbers of Hispanic students. It has among the most developed ties  to local high schools of any community college in the nation. (Achieving the Dream last week honored  the college for those initiatives.) South Texas has dual enrollment programs  in place at 68 partner high schools, with a total dual enrollment of 12,000 students in 2012. Many of those students arrive at South Texas or other colleges with credits that count toward associate degrees.
Dual enrollment, an approach that President Obama lauded in his State of the Union earlier this week, is one of several ways South Texas has tried to boost the college preparedness of high school students, including pre-college counseling, academic camps, early college high schools and scholarship programs. But dual enrollment is the most extensive, and perhaps most appealing to students and their families, as the college waives tuition for participants.
Taken together, the high school partnerships have helped drive down remedial placement rates to 17 percent, an extremely low number for a college that serves a largely lower-income, first-generation college population. The remedial placement rate has dropped by 45 percent since 2004, and Shirley A. Reed, the college’s president, credits dual enrollment as being a big part of that improvement.
“The high schools have accepted responsibility for college readiness,” Reed said. “Now we share in the responsibility.”
While community colleges and high schools joining forces to prevent students from falling into the remedial trap may sound like a no brainer, it’s hardly the norm. But many community college leaders say failing to collaborate with K-12 is no longer an option.
Even so, the work isn’t easy. Officials at South Texas and Long Beach said it takes years to build trust between educators on both sides, and that improving the transition to college is more involved than it looks
Take Long Beach City College’s use of high school transcripts, which are a key part of the application haul admissions reps sort through every year at selective, four-year institutions. Open-access community colleges, however, rarely use transcripts. And the colleges lack the staffing to do so even if they wanted to.
Yet experts have increasingly pushed community colleges to look at high school performance in determining remedial needs. Research released last year by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College found  that up to a third of students who placed into remediation because of their performance on two popular standardized tests could have passed credit-bearing courses.
So to respond to the growing call for the use of “multiple measures” in remedial placement, Long Beach City College relied on its local school district to create and transfer over easy-to-use electronic transcripts. Faculty from both sides also worked together to makes sure that high school courses incorporated Common Core standards and matched up with the college’s curriculums. That collaboration took time to develop, said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president of Long Beach City College.
“There’s already a history of trust between faculty,” Oakley said, adding that the "dialogue between higher education and K12 over the Common Core is a good place to start” in creating partnerships.
As California Goes
Long Beach also saw big jumps in the pilot group’s performance in transfer-level math courses. While only 31 percent of those students placed into the courses, that’s three times more than the 9 percent placement rate of their peers. The overall student population had a 7 percent placement rate. Students from the test group were also three times more likely than their peers to take credit-bearing math in their first semester (16 percent compared to 5.2 percent), and had a 51 percent passage rate.
The new placement method is a “comprehensive analysis of students’ high school academic records,” according to the college. In addition to using broader placement criteria with 1,000 students from Long Beach high schools, the college also pushed a “prescriptive” full-time course load, which emphasized early completion of foundational skills in English, reading and math. About 85 percent of the group attended full-time, compared to 50 percent of students in their peer group the previous year.
Early returns show that these students are more likely to complete, with a finding of 63 percent showing a “behavioral intent” to get to graduation, according to college researchers, compared with 37 percent for students from the same local high schools in the previous year. They are also likely to earn credentials faster, according to the college.
Oakley said the college hopes to expand the program in coming years.
Long Beach is a good laboratory for experimentation, in part because the two-year college, school district and California State University at Long Beach exist in a more roughly contiguous, self-contained urban area than other, more sprawling and overlapping California school boundaries. The three institutions have earned plenty of praise for their close collaboration , which has resulted in a steady uptick  in college-going rates for students from the K12 district, which enrolls a whopping 80,000 students.
But that doesn’t mean Long Beach City College “creamed” students from the local high schools for its Promise Pathways project. Oakley said the sample had the same preparation as their peers, who are typically lower-income and among the most ethnically and racially diverse in the nation.
Even better, the group's improved performance on transfer-level courses extended across all demographics. White students still outpaced their peers, said Oakley, but all groups improved at similar rates.
“It’s part of the puzzle in closing achievement gaps,” he said.
The California community college system chancellor, Brice Harris, said his office likes what it has seen of the new approach to placement at Long Beach. System researchers are studying it for possible replication at other institutions, Oakley said.
Long Beach could serve as a good example beyond California, however, given its ability to move the needle on college preparation in the face of major challenges. And the diverse student population at Long Beach City College, who come from homes where a college-going culture is not the norm, will soon be more common at other colleges around the country.
“The rest of the nation is going to look like Southern California eventually,” said Oakley.