Monday, April 17, 2006

 

The Gap

We’ve been talking with a local high school about a program to allow some motivated seniors to take courses at the college, in lieu of AP courses. The high school benefits by saving money on an AP course, and we benefit both by increased enrollments without giving up a classroom, and quality control over the credits that many of those students would bring to us next year anyway.
Good idea all around.

The sticking point is placement exams.

The high school doesn’t want its students to have to take our placement exams. If students place ‘developmental’ (that is, remedial) in either math or writing, they are barred from college-level courses in relevant disciplines until those deficiencies have been addressed. (I say ‘in relevant disciplines’ because we allow students with shortfalls in math to take, say, drawing.) Although the high school claims that it will subject any students in the program to rigorous criteria, they don’t want to risk the placement exams. I consider this revealing.

What data I’ve seen suggest that the high school’s fear is well-founded. We have a special scholarship program for students who graduate in the top x percent of their high school class. A distressing number of those students test as ‘developmental.’

Community colleges take a lot of flak for teaching remedial courses. But as open-admissions institutions, what choice do we have? As long as students show up with legitimate high school diplomas, we’re mission-bound to accept them. If they show up with trouble writing a sentence or solving an equation, well, I don’t see how that’s our fault. We do our best to fix the educational deficits with which we’re presented. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but I don’t think we’re wrong to make the attempt. In fact, I’d argue that we represent the last, best chance for many students.

Still, it bothers me that students who graduate in the upper echelon of their high school cohorts test developmental. That shouldn’t happen.

I don’t think it’s the tests. We use a common math test across the state, and part of the writing test is standard. Our cut scores are in the same ballpark as everyone else’s. In fact, there’s a move afoot now to make placement tests entirely uniform across the state. I’m a little wary about what kind of test would lend itself to that, but it should certainly put to rest any accusations of self-dealing. The questions on these exams are quite a bit easier than on, say, the SAT. (We also have an SAT cutoff that exempts a student from placement exams.) They’re not out of line.

Taxpayers in some states (so I’ve heard) have drawn a line in the sand, refusing to reimburse cc’s for remedial courses. The argument, to the extent that one exists, is that they shouldn’t have to pay for the same education twice. The flaw in the argument is that it punishes the wrong institution. If a high school didn’t teach a kid to write a paragraph, the high school still gets paid. The cc is punished for the sins of the high school. This is a basic confusion of categories.


I don’t know how to fix K-12 education. (If I did, I wouldn’t do this job.) Part of me suspects that the problem isn’t so much educational as economic; if there were more living-wage jobs out there that didn’t require a college degree, we could give up the fiction that every kid belongs in college without thereby consigning entire groups to poverty. There have always been kids who were, well, screwups. This is not new. In the past, those kids might join the Army, or get a union job at a factory. Now they’re afraid to join the Army for fear of going to Iraq (or they can’t get in due to entrance exams, obesity, drug use, etc.), and those factory jobs are long gone. So some of them find their way to us, despite long and uninterrupted records of struggle with (or indifference to) formal education. Then we get called wasteful for trying to teach them basic math and writing.

Sometimes I suspect that the insistence on education degrees for teachers is the culprit. Our high schools require education degrees, and are laggards on international comparisons. Our colleges and universities don’t, and our higher education sector is the best in the world. Correlation may not prove causation, but it’s awfully hard to argue that education degrees are necessary for quality control when the institutions that don’t require them are more successful than the ones that do.

More basically, housing segregation by income (and, indirectly, race) probably plays a major role. If an entire town is devoid of college-educated parents, the teachers in that high school will face an uphill battle even on good days. Since it’s not politically realistic to fail entire classes, they pass students who, by any objective measure, haven’t mastered high-school level academic skills. Then we get blamed for noticing.

I’ll admit to being an amateur in this area, and there is a vast scholarly literature devoted to it. But from the perspective of a manager in the trenches at a cc, I’m getting a little tired of being bashed for trying to help students whom other institutions have failed. The gap between what gets a kid out of high school and what equips him for success in college is dramatic, wasteful, disturbing, and sometimes fixable. If it deep-sixes our new program, I’ll be disappointed, but we can always catch those kids next year, when they come to us to learn what they didn’t learn in high school.

Comments:
Definitely stick to your guns on this one.

I'm often thinking about the most diplomatic way to send to our most popular "feeder" high schools a summary of how their graduates fared on our placement exam and in our freshman-level courses.
 
ditto - esp. since you are saving them money
 
North Carolina has been very successful in these dual enrollment programs. CCs are helping HS students graduate from K-12 with a substantial amount of college credit, often entering as Sophs.

Our key was to work with the HSs in choosing a placement assessment. Since they were involved at the beginning, they understood that we weren't "spanking" them for poor performance, but were working with them to provide opportunities for their students. Before we collaborated on a national assessment (by the College Board), we had similar problems with them not wanting us to test their students.

Now everyone wins. We get FTE funding for those classes. The students get both HS and college credit. The HS gets to brag about their students getting a head-start on college credit...all completely transferable, BTW.

JDGUT
 
Interesting-- I teach at a SLAC, and unfortunately, most of the high school students we have taking intro courses perform BETTER than our own accepted freshman. Being an adjunct who teaches the 8 am's-- I have had many.

Placement exams here are a sticky subject-- could it be a case that they are intentionally doing poorly on the exam to get the remedial course. (in place of a much harder "regular" course?)
 
Weezy -- I doubt it, only because students don't usually like to take (and pay for) courses that "don't count." If anything, they often find loopholes in our automated registration system to bypass remedial courses altogether, not realizing that they're setting themselves up to fail.
 
The problems that Dean Dad mentions are insidious and far-reaching! I'm finishing my Ph.D. and have taught freshman composition to college students at my university for the last three years. With every course I've taught, more students have graduated from AP English (they usually fail to mention if they've taken and/or passed the AP English test). Likewise, with every course, more students have taken our developmental writing sequence before making to my freshman comp class. This quarter, I have seven students (just over 1/3 of my course) who placed into AP English in high school, completed AP English in high school, and then also placed into developmental writing at our university and are now, after multiple years of developmental instruction at the university level, finally taking freshman comp as junior!
 
You're right, it's not as easy as it looks.

"Part of me suspects that the problem isn’t so much educational as economic; if there were more living-wage jobs out there that didn’t require a college degree, we could give up the fiction that every kid belongs in college without thereby consigning entire groups to poverty."

There are plenty of high-skilled jobs that don't require a college degree (auto tech, plumber, electrician, tool and die, locomotive engineer come to mind.) These do, however, require some of the same higher-order skills that the college boards test for. As long as the education establishment persists in the misconception that the students with the lower-order skills go on the vocational track, however, young people with mechanical aptitudes and little interest in being symbolic analysts will be ill-served by the P-20 establishment.

"There have always been kids who were, well, screwups. This is not new. In the past, those kids might join the Army, or get a union job at a factory. Now they’re afraid to join the Army for fear of going to Iraq (or they can’t get in due to entrance exams, obesity, drug use, etc.), and those factory jobs are long gone."

The military understands that there's a huge investment in preparing a trooper to work with advanced weapon systems. Cannon fodder is so nineteenth century. Manufacturing is another matter. Rising skill premiums are an inducement to invent technologies that more modestly talented people can work with. "Fordism" used a lot of people from the neck down, but they were well rewarded for their efforts. "Luddites" were the symbolic analysts of their day reacting against proto-Fordism in textiles.

"Sometimes I suspect that the insistence on education degrees for teachers is the culprit. Our high schools require education degrees, and are laggards on international comparisons. Our colleges and universities don’t, and our higher education sector is the best in the world. Correlation may not prove causation, but it’s awfully hard to argue that education degrees are necessary for quality control when the institutions that don’t require them are more successful than the ones that do."

Don't forget the market tests!

"More basically, housing segregation by income (and, indirectly, race) probably plays a major role. If an entire town is devoid of college-educated parents, the teachers in that high school will face an uphill battle even on good days."

Time to re-think school choice? Self-segregation is school choice by other means. Your school district comes bundled with the house you buy, and its price reflects the local test scores. Now toss in a little "quality-of-life" zoning and presto, you've just isolated your high school from many of those social problems. (You've introduced others, but that's outside my area of expertise.)
 
A local campus of the state U. was doing a similar program when I taught high school: running sections of calculus at local high schools where a qualified teacher could be found (MS in math). The state U. required the prospective students pass a calculus readiness test (a widely used exam in this state) before they could enroll for the university credit. Based on my experience, they would have been stupid to drop that requirement, as large numbers of wanna-be calculus students routinely failed the calculus readiness test. In addition, now that I am working at a CC, I see many students who profess to have taken calculus in HS show up in my intermediate algebra classes, precalculus classes, whatever. They may have taken calculus in HS, but they sure did not learn much, according to their performance on our placement tests. Thus I encourage you to stick to your guns, too. If the HS people have no compelling arguments as to why the kids ought NOT to be assessed, they should shut up.
 
How interesting that you should write about this. I've accepted a position that might become a tenure-track position teaching a language at a local CC. I am also in the process of completing certification to teach my language at the k-12 level. My goal for next year is to start moves that would involve some (as yet undetermined) collaboration between k-12 language instructors and students and post-secondary instructors and students. As a result of my work in k-12, I've started getting to know some of the teachers who teach my content area in my district. The conversation that led to the proverbial epiphany was when I was telling a high school teacher that I was trying to figure out how to get my students (1st-4th graders) to move beyond the one word answer by incorporating verbs without getting into messy verb paradigm issues. She practically patted my head as she explained that she only expects her students (in high school level classes) to know the first person forms (I and we). Ah HA! No wonder we get so many false beginners in our 101 level classes! I know that high school language classes can lead to high levels of proficiency because we get freshmen in upper level language classes, but these students are not the norm. My hypothesis is that with better communication and collaboration, more students could achieve higher levels of proficiency in my content area.

We'll see anyway. It's been fascinating to get to teach on both sides of the academic fence.
 
If it's all the fault of HS teachers (and it isn't), then what do you propose to do? The problems in even our best High Schools are so significant and widespread that changing the degrees that teachers get/need is fiddling while Rome burns.

Here are just a few of the things that HS teachers need to deal with:

--40%-50% of students have no desire whatsoever to be there. They are there because the state says they have to be there.

--for many students, especially in poor districts, school lunch is the only meal they will eat in a day.

--one thing I've found here in working with both HS and University faculty is that, as more and more high schools have moved to "block" scheduling and affording students an opportunity to do homework in school (because parents aren't making them do it at home), students are coming to the University with no idea about how to do schoolwork outside of a structured school enviornment.

--parents who don't make children do homework.

--parents who are so desperate to be "friends" with their children that they don't make them go to bed, study, or understand any sort of social interaction.

--manditory, high stakes testing that determines raises and personnel decisions (in Ohio, un NCLB, if a school does poorly on a test for three years in a row, the principle gets canned).

While I agree that there are students who don't belong in college, yet, I think there are many who don't belong in HS. Parents and the state, however, have become so used to schools acting as babysitters that they are un-aware of their own responsibility in this. I think if we were to start kicking students out of high school earlier and forcing parents to confront the fact that they are complicit in their sons' and daughters' performance, we will start to see some change.
 
The best math students at the high schools usually get college credit in high school either through dual credit or AP. That means the the students that don't take calculus until college are the weaker math students. It's not surprising that the class of high school students might be stronger than the traditional class in some areas.

I had the embarassment of advising an incoming student that her test scores indicated that she needed to start in a remedial English class. She then informed me that she had college credit from our college in Comp I through our dual credit program.

We are moving toward offering several of the course on our campus through a dual enrollment program. It is easier to keep up standards when the college has complete control over the course.
 
Anonymous -- no, I don't think it's all the fault of high school teachers. That's why I specifically mentioned the lack of economic alternatives and housing segregation. I assume as well that parental involvement (or lack of same) is crucial, though I don't know how to measure to what degree that has changed over the years.

Stephen -- I'm not entirely unsympathetic with school choice as a concept, but the details strike me as fatal. First, and most basically, transportation costs would skyrocket. If school choice is to be effective, it can't rely on parents driving. Do you propose having every district send buses to a dozen surrounding towns, to pick up the kids who chose it? That's a logistical and financial nightmare. (I don't think it's a coincidence that magnet programs work best in huge cities with decent public transportation.) Second, it more or less assumes that a significant number of schools are not worth even trying to help, which strikes me as antidemocratic. Finally, as Fischel argued in "The Homevoter Hypothesis," much taxpayer support for local schools is based on the fact that they're local, by which he means, tied to property values. Good schools raise property values. If that connection is severed, then school taxes are just another tax, voters would become much more hostile to them, and the sector would quickly be abandoned to those who couldn't afford private schools.

That's not to deny the reality of economic segregation, and the evils attendant to it. I just don't see school choice helping, and I do see it hurting. Zoning is another matter; we're probably much more in agreement on that. If I hear the phrase "preserve rural character" one more time, some rural characters are going to suffer.

Your list of high-skill jobs that don't require a college degree is dispiriting. Is there really a growth market in locomotive engineers? (I wish!) Is there really a growth market in tool and die? If there is, I haven't seen it. And the 'cannon fodder' line is exactly right, and exactly the problem: if the Army doesn't need the mechanically-gifted anymore, who does?

My concern is that as a society, we're acquiescing in a gradual narrowing of the ways to win, economically. Those who don't fit in the academic mold, if they aren't athletes, entrepreneurs, or salespeople, don't have many options. So kids who really don't want to be in college (yes, we get them, too) go to college for lack of any better ideas. I'm all for giving second chances (which is why I'd oppose liberalizing dropout rules), but if the kid doesn't really want the chance, it probably won't work.
 
Anonymous said:

"The best math students at the high schools usually get college credit in high school either through dual credit or AP. That means the the students that don't take calculus until college are the weaker math students."

Actually, my experiences (and those of every one of my colleagues whom I've discussed this with face-to-face) is that incoming freshman who have had calculus in high school tend to do *much* worse in Calculus I in college.

I think the two main reasons for this are:

1. Taking calculus in high school makes the student far too overconfident once he/she takes calculus in college. Many of these students think they know what they're doing when they don't.

2. Many high school calculus classes...well...suck. A lot. Around this region, for example, most students who take a "calculus" class in high school don't learn a thing about limits. They're just told that the derivative gives them the slope of the tangent line and they're told how to differentiate rational functions.

And some universities won't accept AP credit (or won't always accept it). For good reason, in my opinion.
 
"Is there really a growth market in locomotive engineers?"...yes, actually, there probably is, since (freight) rail traffic is growing and major RRs are placing lots of new locomotive orders. I doubt if the total number of incremental jobs for engineers is more than a few thousand, though.
 
Dean Dad,

Definitely stick to your guns. Don't water down the college-level courses because some students are unprepared. That's unfair to everyone.

I don't think it's so much of a problem when high school students test into developmental (remedial, pre-college, whatever you call it) classes. Let them take those classes and then move to the next level. My homeschooled son, a high school freshman, tested into a developmental level at community college. He took the developmental course, aced it, learned a lot, and is now taking freshman composition. What's the problem?

It's ridiculous to think that every student should be on the same level. Some students might not have had good teachers in school. Some might be dyslexic, like my son. Some might be slower learners. Surely quite a lot of them are not native speakers of English. As long as the students who take developmental classes learn, and pass them, it's all good.

Some public schools are not teaching students very well. That's a problem, but it isn't your problem. Even if public schools were doing a better job, there would still be students who needed remediation, and community colleges are a good place to get it.
 
DD --

Just a thought -- why not get a few of the HS teachers who are giving you a hard time to sit in on a class or two? If you can demonstrate that they do their kids no favors by dumping them in over their heads, then that might help the process?
 
I teach at a cc in PA. We have "dual enrollment" courses that the high schools love, but I've had a number of d.e. students in my classes & they've all been awful - poorly prepared both academically and in terms of study habits. When I complained to the assistant dean running the program, she told me it was my responsibility to take up the slack & teach them what they needed in order to catch up. The problem was: when? They got to class late & left early, thanks to "transportation issues." I was expected to be understanding about those, too.
I taught one dual enrollment class. After that, I asked not to be assigned any more d.e. students.
It's a great idea, but when the high school teachers don't do their part & the cc administration doesn't back up the cc instructors, it just plain doesn't work.
 
I teach in a system with dueal enrollment. My high school students are my best and my worst students -- and yes, they have to take the same placement tests no matter what CC in the state, which helps. But the problem here is that the program used to be a lure for the best students. Then students who really should not be in thr program, not because they scraped the tests, but because they really aren't cut out for college yet, started to get shunted in for a number of reasons. Parents who wanted the flexibility for their kids or supported/enforced their kids outside jobs -- often 30 or so hours a week! It's one thing when a kid is supporting herself, but if the kid is in High School, they shouldn't be working that much -- school is their job. But the state also has a very high number of "super-seniors" -- seniors 19-21 years old (and don't even start me out on how wrong I think it is to have 21 year olds and 14 year lods at the same school).

Frequently, students with serious attitude and attendance problems are pushed into the program by HS counselors who don't want the drop-outs or hassle -- because a kid who isn't mature enough to take high school seriously for a semester and prove she can attend all her classes on time and do well in them will change all those habits in college, where FERPA makes it very difficult to set up safety nets!

At least I know that my students did place high enough on the tests to be admitted to the highest level of developmental English or above. In order to get FTEs, most of the Social Science classes have no prereqs, because the Gen Ed requirements are very general. The only history classes that are required are the ones taken by the HS students -- atate history is always full, and they have to have one year of history in toto to graduate. Once they're in college qua college, history is not required. And since the range of history instruction ranges from a retired HS teacher who spoonfeeds them for scan-tron tests and two people who try to keep up real transfer-levels, guess whose classes fill first?
 
I teach in a state where the top high school students can go to any college they can be admitted to for dual credit. As an instructor, I don't know who they are until they tell me. Generally, when I have a student who out-performs their peers, is concerned about the quality of their work and has good attendance, I find out they are also in the high school to college program.

I assume they take the standard placement tests here -- and as well they should. It might not be a bad idea to do some assessment studies on the placement exams -- figure out if they are letting a certain kind of student pass when they shouldn't and placing others lower than they should be. Then you can have a discussion with the high schools with evidence about the accuracy of the test for your school.... just becuase it is called "acuplacer" doesn't mean that it IS accurate!
 
On the jobs issue: one of our local community colleges regularly tries to recruit hs students for its heating/air-conditioning (HVAC?) and welding programs, since it can't keep up with local demand for their graduates.

I've never understood the "don't fund remedial courses" mentality on the part of legislatures, since what it does is punish the colleges and universities that must offer them under another name.
 
In MN, we have system called PSEO (Post Secondary Enrollment Option), where top hs students can take college credits and the state pays for the tuition. And as an instructor, my experience with these students has been generally positive. The few negatives were experienced at a cc in a rural community where it seemed that over 1/2 of my classes (in Communication) were comprised of PSEO students since the local district chose to push those students who wanted a communication course to the local CC instead of offering something at the HS. In my current position at a large suburban/urban CC, the ratio of PSEO students has gone down and the quality of those students is uniformly high. Of course, there is a stick - if a student doesn't get a C or better in the course, they have to reimburse the state for the tuition and they are dropped from the program.

And, I might add, I was denied entry into the PSEO program as a hs student since my grades were low. Ah, irony....

k
 
I can relate to this somewhat but the UK system is slightly different so I'll give a brief explanation.

5-16 is compulsory education
16-18 is Further Education
18+ is Higher Education/University

FE institutions are designed to bridge this gap between schools and employment or university. Most FE institions operate standard testing during student induction, even with those who left with high grades at school.

On the issue of remedial classes all students are required to take key skills, which are similar in principle to remedial classes, until they are 18. A lot of students that I support and/or tutor left compulsory education with few or no qualifications so it does offer an opportunity for that to be rectified. Major problem with Key Skills that a lot of students resent having to complete them, even the brighter ones, because of the extra workload this causes.

The nearest thing we have to a dual enrollment system and community colleges are that some FE institutions are part of larger universities and can therefore offer university programmes as part of their courses. I doubt I could have taken my degree if this was not the case, because of the extra costs moving away would have incurred.

It also allows allows adults to obtain degrees later in life if they other responsibilities such as children. For example my courses ran at times to allow students to pick up their childsren from school.

Sorry, that went off on a tangent, didn't it... Hope that it made sense.
 
Stacey - I'm not sure you're quite up-to-date ;-)

I teach maths in an FE college.

11-16 is compulsory. At the end of year 11, students take exams called GCSEs - separate exam in each subject.

16-18 can be in the same school as for 11-16, or in a dedicated 16-18 college.

Some of these 16-18 colleges tend to specialise in vocational courses, preparing stduents for employment at age 18.

Others, called sixth-form colleges, tend to specialise in academic courses, called A-levels, preparing students for university. Students take 3 or 4 subjects, each studied over 2 years, and thene xamined separately.

There is a historic trend for students who achieve lower grades at GCSE to be pushed towards vocational courses/colleges, while the sixth-forms set higher criteria - so GCSE grades act as equivalents of placement tests.

The key GCSEs are English and Maths. In most sixth-forms, students who arrive without a grade C (technically, all grades from G to A* are passes), will be expected to retake Maths/English (equivalent of remedial). Most universities require a pass in both.

The problems faced by sixth-forms are that students are frequently allowed to take essay-heavy subjects (such as Business, Psychology, Geography) without having passed English, and that a C in Maths does not actually provide an adequate basis for science subjects - so these students often do worse.

Universities also regularly moan about the skill level of students coming in, but since universities have selective entry (based on A-level grades), it's less of a problem.

A new development, being encouraged by the government, is for dual-enrolment - for "non-academic" 14-16 yrs to attend vocational FE colleges for some/all of their classes; and for acceleration on to A-level courses for academically gifted 14-16yrs. This is going to give us the same problems you're talking about - getting students on to courses for the correct reason, and wide age ranges in classes.

Key Skills is one of many BandAid attempts to fix basic maths and english, and is pretty much on the way out.

Hope that clarifies/helps...
 
"Community colleges take a lot of flak for teaching remedial courses. But as open-admissions institutions, what choice do we have? As long as students show up with legitimate high school diplomas, we’re mission-bound to accept them. If they show up with trouble writing a sentence or solving an equation, well, I don’t see how that’s our fault. We do our best to fix the educational deficits with which we’re presented. Sometimes it works, sometimes not, but I don’t think we’re wrong to make the attempt. In fact, I’d argue that we represent the last, best chance for many students"

As a CC professor, I must agree with your point of CC being the last hope. I often make the analogy the CC are the "educational lymphatic system". We take all the students that slipped through the cracks of normal academic circulation, filter out those that aren't ready to move and rehabilitate the rest.

Thanks for starting this conversation.
 
The nearest thing we have to a dual enrollment system and community colleges are that some FE institutions are part of larger universities and can therefore offer university programmes as part of their courses. I doubt I could have taken my degree if this was not the case, because of the extra costs moving away would have incurred. Mold Inspection
 
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