Collaborating to Find Solutions Out of Remediation

We should better inform students about the placement exam and allow them to retest after they've received more instruction, write W. Theory Thompson and Danae McLeod.

January 24, 2018
 
 
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The problems surrounding remedial college requirements have been receiving a lot of attention lately. The conversation often focuses on the rising costs students pay for these classes and the high attrition rates.

The fact is that many students who enter community colleges need remediation. A 2016 study by the Center for Community College Engagement found 68 percent of students enter with at least one developmental class requirement. A report by Education Reform Now diagnoses the main problem as a deficient high school education that underprepares students to enter college-level courses. But community colleges play a significant role in locking students into these courses by outdated approaches to placement testing and by failing to alert and inform students about the college entrance exam.

Many students entering community colleges show up to take college placement tests in reading, writing and math with little to no preparation. They do not know what is at stake: performing poorly lands students in remedial classes that will cost them a lot of money and significantly increase the chances that they will drop out.

When students don’t do well on the SAT or ACT, they can pay to take the test again. But community college placement exams usually do not allow retesting and students are stuck with remediation if they have scored poorly on their first attempt. Indeed, an average student who shows up to take the college placement exam with no preparation will land in multiple levels of remediation in math, reading and writing. A student with such remedial requirements will have to complete 24 (non)-credits of class time. It will take a full-time student one year to complete those requirements, draining their financial aid for credit-bearing classes and weakening their resolve to stay in college.

As members of community-based organizations in the Bronx, we work with low-income, first-generation college students, and we are acutely aware of the issues surrounding community college placement-testing practices. Many of the students with whom we work -- students with high school equivalency degrees, returning adult students and students attending night school (Young Adult Borough Centers) to earn their diplomas -- require significant educational intervention to pass the college placement exam.

Our advocacy group, Bronx Opportunity Network, consists of seven community-based organizations working toward college persistence and completion for Bronx residents. We provide college-level instruction to help our students start college with the least amount of remediation possible. We have been collaborating with City University of New York community colleges, in particular, to help improve their remediation programs.

Bringing in students with fewer remedial requirements is an especially pressing issue for CUNY colleges because of the expansion of ASAP (Accelerated Study in Associate Programs) in CUNY institutions. Students in ASAP receive more academic and financial supports to ensure they graduate within three years, but they’re only eligible if they have no more than one remedial requirement. A study of incoming students in 2016 at Bronx Community College by the Office of Institutional Research and Testing reported that only 9 percent of students who took the college placement test were exempt from remediation -- leaving 91 percent of incoming students in remediation.

Through our collaborative work with CUNY, we have developed strategies to shift students seamlessly from our college-bridge programs into college. One major coordinated effort is that our students can take a group retest of the college placement exam after completing a bridge program. That agreement allows us to know where our students score initially and to tailor our curriculum so they learn what they need to pass the college placement exam.

Another initiative invites students to test out of remediation once they’re in college through free summer and winter intensive math and writing workshops at the community colleges. We send our students to CUNY colleges in cohorts to increase the sense of community and accountability, helping them to persist together. And those of us who work in community-based organizations and also serve as adjunct professors at CUNY community colleges teach first-year seminar classes so that our students continue learning from us on campus. We are pleased with the results so far: our students enter college with fewer remediation requirements, the ability to start earning credits immediately and higher retention rates.

The problem of remediation in our education system should be addressed on a nationwide level. We hope to see a more significant shift away from remediation and toward corequisite classes following the model of Guttman Community College. But until more significant reform occurs, we have two primary recommendations for the collaborative work that community colleges and community-based organizations can do to ameliorate the problem of remediation as it currently stands.

Better inform students about preparation options for the placement exam. Community colleges need to do a better job of informing students about the placement exam and the repercussions of performing poorly. Students who know that they are going to be tested perform better than students who are simply assigned a test date in their admissions letter.

In 2016, the admissions office at Bronx Community College started talking about the importance of preparation for the college placement exam at new students’ information sessions and then scheduled students for test-prep workshops automatically instead of making it optional. After instituting that practice, they saw a significant increase (an estimated 10 percent) in students testing out of the lowest level of remediation. It should be noted that the test-prep workshop offered by Bronx Community College and Hostos Community College focuses on test-taking strategies and computer use, not on academic preparation.

Also, since community colleges don’t prepare students academically to take the exam, we recommend that they route students to agencies that offer college-bridge services. Community-based organizations have the capacity to prepare students to start college, and community colleges need this service. We know that better coordination of those referrals will help more students enter college with fewer remedial requirements.

Allow students to retest after they have received interventional instruction. Students should not be locked into courses based on their initial placement test scores. In higher education, we don’t require that the ACT and SAT be taken only once, and we shouldn’t be putting such restrictions on community college placement exams. Students who perform poorly on their exams should be allowed to retest.

We understand that allowing a retest for all students could significantly flood an already overburdened system. So our recommendation, for now, is that students who enroll in a college-bridge program should be allowed to retest after they have received a certified number of interventional instruction hours. To make that happen, community colleges could certify more community-based organizations to provide interventional instruction and direct students who test into remediation to them.

Meeting students where they are is a significant factor in making sure they stay in college and graduate. Both community colleges and community-based organizations are working to better educate students. We must establish strong collaborative partnerships to deepen our impact as well as to allow students to make use all of the resources available to them.

Bio

W. Theory Thompson is the program director of the LifeLink College Bridge and Retention Program for Good Shepherd Services, a nonprofit social service agency in New York City. He is an adjunct professor at Bronx Community College and teaches the first-year seminar, and he has also served as an adjunct professor for the State University of New York at New Paltz in the Black Studies Department. Danae McLeod is the executive director at Grace Outreach, a nonprofit based in the South Bronx working with women to further their educational goals and achieve financial independence. She teaches philosophy, literature and women's studies at SUNY and CUNY campuses, including cohort-based first-year seminars at Bronx Community College.

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