by Gary Kaplan April 22, 2014
Reports of the redesign of the SAT resonate with many parents and their school-age children who have had personal experience with the controversial college gatekeeper. But another test in the College Board portfolio, though not in the news, is arguably even more important to the future—or lack of a future—of high-school age students. It’s the Accuplacer. Accuplacer is, like the SAT, a suite of tests. It assesses concrete English and math skills—things like decimals, percents, equations, reading comprehension and basic writing skills.
Accuplacer tests are used by community colleges, state colleges and public universities in all New England states to place incoming students in the right courses. “Right courses” doesn’t refer to the choice of academic subjects they will be studying. Crucially, Accuplacer tests determine whether they will take regular, for-credit courses—or instead take non-credit “developmental” courses. That is, remedial courses. Astonishingly, and sadly, in Massachusetts, 65% of incoming community college students score too low on the Accuplacer tests, and as a result they find themselves assigned to as many as three or four remedial courses. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, in Boston recently, called our remediation rate “a staggering number.” That is a scandal that you should be reading about on the front pages. And it gets worse. Students pay the same tuition and fees for these courses as for regular, for-credit courses, and the courses take up the same 16 weeks of study—but the developmental courses don’t count toward a degree.
According to the Massachusetts Department of Higher Education, 90% of students who start community college in developmental courses drop out without earning a degree. It is widely agreed that community colleges are an important source of our future technical workforce. Many mid-skill-level jobs in technology, health care, digital manufacturing and other growing industries can be filled by workers with two-year degrees or even one-year certificates from these two-year institutions. For students who want a four-year degree, community college is an accessible and affordable first step. The cost of community college compared to other options makes it the most feasible ladder into sustainable employment or higher education for low-income students. That’s why the 15 community colleges in Massachusetts, with 140,000 students, account for more than half of total public undergraduate enrollment in the Commonwealth. But that ladder to college and career is sawed off at the first rung when students stumble on the Accuplacer; they’re simply not prepared for community college work. Not only do they drop out without a degree.
They often exhaust the funds they have for education and waste a year or more of time. If they have used a student loan, as many do, they also incur debt. Although many people, even beyond the parental community, care about education, few have heard of Accuplacer. It is not the road to the Ivy League or the Pac-12, but it is a vital pathway to community college or state university for thousands of young people—and many older people—whose aspirations are high but whose personal options are constrained by economic realities.
Every high school offers SAT prep, but very few offer any form of Accuplacer prep. Though some community colleges administer the Accuplacer in local high schools, and some offer developmental boot camps for limited numbers of graduating seniors, these outreach efforts are the exception, not the rule. Developmental education is a shameful waste of human resources. It disproportionately impacts low-income and minority students, so it is in effect discriminatory. And it is unnecessary. Students can be prepared for the Accuplacer, just as they can for the SAT. They can improve their skills, raise their scores and “test out” of developmental courses. An Accuplacer-preparation program conducted in high school can refresh rusty skills or teach those that were never mastered. The assessment and instructional tools are available.
The state’s definition of “college and career readiness” pointedly includes “achievement of specified levels of competence in English and math to be placed into entry-level courses in college without the need for remediation.” An Accuplacer course of study can be folded into the regular math or English class and taught by the regular teacher. The supplemental study supports the regular curriculum as well as preparing the student for Accuplacer. During the periods when the class is doing Accuplacer, each student is online following his own curriculum. The teacher moves around the classroom helping, coaching and instructing individual students. This is the typical blended learning pedagogy. The teacher functions as a tutor, giving individualized instruction on an as-needed basis. The data base embedded in the software records all activity so that the teacher can quickly scan a report at the end of the period and see each student’s progress and flag problems to be addressed the following session. This high-school-based model is recommended by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.
Our high schools should be turning out students who can do community-college-level work, but that won’t be accomplished quickly. In fact, the 65% rate of remedial-class enrollment in community colleges hasn’t improved in the past two decades of education reform. In the meantime, for the future of individual students and for the future of our Commonwealth—indeed, for the future of New England—Accuplacer prep should be incorporated into the high school curriculum. Gary Kaplan is executive director of JFYNetWorks, a nonprofit provider of standards-based blended learning programs, including Accuplacer prep, to schools and colleges.