Another Approach To College Readiness Gap

Another Approach To College Readiness Gap

Lynn English

Published  April 10 2014 in CommonWealth Magazine

Another approach to college readiness gap
Assessment and instruction are key
by Gary Kaplan

ON A VISIT to Massachusetts last month, US Education Secretary Arne Duncan cautioned against resting on our laurels. Despite the Bay State’s nation-leading test scores, he chided, “Four in ten of your high school graduates aren’t ready for college. Forty percent are taking remedial classes. That’s a staggering number.”

The secretary didn’t quite have his facts right. Four of every ten students entering public colleges and universities in Massachusetts aren’t ready for the course work and require remedial classes. The number for community colleges alone is even higher: 65 percent of students entering the two-year colleges need to take remedial math.

But Duncan needn’t have worried about complacency in the Commonwealth. Even as he scolded, Commissioner of Higher Education Richard Freeland was wrapping up his critique of remedial education for the spring issue of CommonWealth magazine. In his article, the commissioner gives a thorough review of the importance of public higher education as the workforce pipeline of our skill-based economy; and he zeroes in on developmental education—especially the 65 percent rate at the community college level – as the bottleneck at the mouth of that pipeline.

“Massachusetts cannot succeed unless our system of higher education succeeds,” he concludes. “And, until developmental education is fixed…that system can’t fuel our full economic potential.”

Having established the crucial importance of fixing developmental education, the commissioner describes two kinds of experiments underway to clear the bottleneck: reorganization of the structure of developmental math courses; and re-examination of the way students place into those courses.

The structural experiments – modularization, contextualization, diversification of math pathways—seem creative and effective ways of accelerating progress for many students. The placement experiment, however, raises questions that go to the core of the college readiness issue.

This experiment partially sets aside the suite of Accuplacer placement tests that have been used in Massachusetts since 1998 for the purpose of determining college course placement. Instead of taking these or any tests, high school graduates with as low as a 2.4 grade point average (GPA) will be placed directly into credit-earning college math classes. (English course placement will still be determined by Accuplacer testing, as will math placement for recent high school graduates below a 2.4 GPA and older students.)

The first question raised by this experiment is whether a 2.4 GPA should be the standard of college readiness in Massachusetts. The second question is: How do we measure skills?

Massachusetts and every other state adopted college placement testing originally because high school grades did not provide accurate or consistent measures of student skills. (They adopted MCAS and other state high school assessments for the same reason.) Grades are subjective. One teacher’s A is another’s B. One school’s 2.7 GPA can be the equivalent of a 2.2 GPA from another school—or 3.2. Standardized testing was developed because of the irreducible idiosyncrasies of grading across 3 million teachers in 100,000 schools. The Common Core, PARCC, and SBAC tests are the latest iteration of the historical consensus among educators on the need for standardized measurement. The problem with Accuplacer is not Accuplacer: it’s the level of skills that Accuplacer reveals.

Commissioner Freeland faces that inconvenient truth squarely at the end of the article: “… we won’t solve the developmental education problem entirely until all high school graduates are prepared for the rigors of college coursework…until every one of our state’s students arrives on campus ready for credit-bearing courses….”

How do we achieve that goal? Freeland can’t do it himself. By definition, higher education can’t do it. It has to be done at the K-12 level, where efforts are indeed underway. Mitchell Chester, the commissioner of the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, announced that “staggering” 40 percent statistic six months before Secretary Duncan came to town. Chester is responsible for the introduction of the new PARCC tests, which Freeland expects to produce valid standardized data that will bridge the readiness gap. But PARCC is only in the first pilot stage, and anyone who remembers the early days of MCAS knows that the new testing regimen will take several years to settle in.

For 11,000 remedial students a year, that’s a long time to wait. While we’re waiting, there is an interim option, offered by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, the premier community college think tank cited by Freeland in the article. It is un-mellifluously called “early college readiness assessments with transition curricula.” It has two components: assessment and instruction. In the assessment component, college readiness assessment tests are administered in high school, as early as 11th grade. These tests show students and their teachers exactly where they need to improve their skills to be ready for college. The second component, transition curricula, consists of a course of modules, online tutorials or other instruction, offered no later than 12th grade, that responds to the needs identified by the assessment. The goal of this intervention is to find and fill specific skill gaps and prepare students to enter college without the need for remediation.

This approach is in fact being piloted in more than a dozen schools in Massachusetts by JFYNetWorks. The intervention folds into a high school class schedule with minimal disruption. Using the Accuplacer, still the de jure standard of college readiness, as the assessment, and online tutorials as the transition curricula, it is raising student skills and reducing the need for remedial courses by as much as 70 percent. Over the past three years, the program has helped students eliminate more than 1,100 developmental courses. Applied statewide, the “college readiness assessment and transition curricula” strategy could begin immediately to bridge the readiness gap and accelerate our progress toward both commissioners’ vision of the day when every one of our state’s students arrives on campus prepared for the rigors of college and ready for credit-bearing courses.

Gary Kaplan is executive director of JFYNetWorks, a nonprofit provider of standards-based blended learning programs to schools and colleges.

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