Wednesday, July 18, 2007


Ask My Readers: Students Who Outplace

When they apply for admission at my cc, prospective students who haven't placed out already with SAT/ACT scores or AP credit have to take placement tests in math and English. The English exam includes a hand-graded essay. For simplicity, I'll just address the English.

Depending on how they score, one of several things will happen. The student might place directly into intro to composition, at which point, all is well. The student might place into remedial English, but that's okay, since we have that well in hand and we're pretty good at it. (Specialization has its rewards.) The student might reveal him/herself to be ESL, at which point, s/he takes ESL coursework; again, not ideal, but we know what to do and students have a real shot at success. Or the student can “outplace,” scoring too low even for remediation.

This is where the dilemmas get ugly, and where we're struggling to devise an intelligent system.

The first step is usually to find a way around the problem. Was the student hung over at test time? Take it again. Was the student actually ESL? We can handle that. Did the student simply blow off the test out of misplaced arrogance? Give The Talk, and a retest. Some students are saved this way.

But some native-speaker students did their level best, and just didn't show enough academic strength to suggest that even remediation would be worthwhile.

(I'd insert my usual “what the hell are the high schools thinking?” rant here, but it doesn't really help.)

This is where “community” and “college” can crash into each other.

The stiff-backed academic in me likes to think that the value of a degree only holds insofar as it suggests the ability to perform at a college level. So if a kid just isn't in the ballpark, well, college isn't for everyone. Let the student find another field of endeavor, one more suited to his strengths, and let us provide higher education. Even in my most bleeding-heart moments, I see real validity to this position.

But there's that pesky “open-door admissions” side of our mission. And I'm just social scientist enough to bristle at the idea that a single test, even if given twice, can tell you that a given student will never succeed at college-level work. (I think the issue is called “ecological inference,” which, if I remember right, refers to the inability to predict or ascribe individual traits or behavior based on larger statistical trends. It's one thing to say a student's chances of passing are low; it's another to pronounce the enterprise futile.) I don't want to trap a kid in endless remediation and take his money for what will very likely be a quixotic enterprise, but I don't want to slam the open door entirely shut, either. And my dissatisfaction with the existing options is fairly widely shared on campus.

(The libertarian option of presenting students with the statistics and leaving it to them to decide whether to try remediation doesn't quite cut it for me. To the extent that we're taxpayer funded, we have a fiduciary obligation to use those resources where they have a reasonable chance of doing some good. Giving a kid a blank check to remediate until the cows come home strikes me as a betrayal of the taxpayers. It could also potentially poison the classroom atmosphere in the remedial classes, if the backlog of multiple-attempters grows large.)

So, I'm turning to my wise and worldly readers for advice.

Do you have – or have you seen – a reasonably fair and effective system for handling the prospective students who outplace? We're batting ideas around, but none of them strikes me as obviously correct, and I claim no monopoly on good ideas. I've heard talk – all of it speculative -- of individual tutoring, group tutoring, non-credit classes, alliances with vocational schools, and simply throwing up our hands and sending students away. The goal is to neither ignore the real students who actually show up, nor to water down the quality of the degree, but to get students who start out far behind their peers to catch up, and to do it in a fiscally and academically responsible way. Any useful ideas would be greatly appreciated. Your thoughts?

I like the alliance with a vocational school, but since our state has combined community and technical colleges, most of our vocational programs have significant "academic" content, so that may not be such a good alternative.

If I could wave my magic wand, I'd probably do three things....

1) Collect completion rates for students who outplace. Give these statistics to the student as a fair warning. I'd also make them repeat (verbally) the essence of the warning and have them sign something that says they actually understand the content.

2) Partner with a nearby University's departments dealing in education and perhaps developmental psychology (or, whomever is working with those with learning disabilities and low IQs). The point of the partnership would be to develop further testing to assess the student's actual educational potential, not just their abilities with English.

3) Provide remedial remediation at a higher tuition rate -- one that accounts for more of the true costs. Perhaps this can happen via individual tutoring or community ed, and when the student's skills qualify them for the actual remediation, they can be put back into the regular track.
I think we do have a lowest score point where folks are sent to some sort of community ed (where the GED classes are administered). I imagine that this is community funded for the most part, but no one is claiming that it's college.
My community college actually made it impossible to outplace in math.

If you couldn't place into one of the math department's developmental courses (we only went down to Algebra 1) the developmental ed center had a self-paced computer-based program that they would administer for you...

It could start at whole-number arithmetic.

Perhaps there is something similar in English so that you can send them off to something like the "Learning Center"?
As someone who volunteers with her local Literacy Council, the first thing that popped into my head on reading this is "Send them over to us!"

I know the Council I work with does Basic Literacy one-on-one tutoring, and some of those being tutored do have getting a college degree as their goal. I know that a semi-local university has a Adult Learning Resource Center which has resources to help find programs that can assist these students.

It is a long and hard path, and it takes a lot of individual attention and encouragement, but it is possible. We have several succes stories of people who have gone this route, and while it takes many years, they are given intermediate goals to shoot for that keep them involved and help them show tangible progress.

Would you have similar programs (such as a local Literacy Council)in your community? Can you work together with them to help those students, so that they aren't just left with few opportunities?
I'm actually more concerned about the kid who finally makes a cutoff score after taking 5 different tests (a few SAT, a few ACT, our placement test). Is the passing score an outlier?

On your question, the one thing you did not mention was disability testing. We handle kids with dyslexia and other learning disabilities separately, and with quite a bit of success.

I've never been in a position to be privy to what our placement test curve looks like, but I've also never heard the topic of an "outplace" score come up in advising training. However, the problem you ask about could be responsible for one revision in our developmental courses.

We have two levels of reading prep (typically the weakest spot for many of our students). When it was added, the main reason given was to avoid boring the borderline kids in order to reach the weak ones, but the real reason may have been to deal with the question you address.

We already had a math prep system that went all the way down to whole number arithmetic and fractions, so we already handle everyone there. None of these classes earn college credit, by the way.

I like the suggestion of reading the riot act on success rates to those kids. That could be added to the "study skills" class, but I always wonder if it will discourage them. I know one who started with fractions and became an engineer with A and B grades in calculus and physics, so it can be done.
Interestingly, I find I still harbor ill feelings about placement tests. I remember taking my own English placement tests at a large research U. I had to transfer to that school for a semester from my previous school for health reasons, and so I took the English test in case I had to stay longer. It was an essay test. After winning a number of essay scholarships already, and being a published author, I still managed to fail the test, and tested into remedial, "level 1" English.

It's not that I'm still personally bitter (it's been years, and I'm in grad school in another field), but it does say something to me about the value of these tests. This wasn't the point of your post, so I'll just can it. But I just find that I'm a bit suspicious of placement tests scores in general.
I agree with the strategy of sending the kids to a literacy center or other obviously non-college environment. It will probably be more productive, and it will also send these kids (and their parents) the message that their high school did a really sub-par job. Maybe that will help the problem long-term.

You're open-admission, so I don't know if this is possible, but you might also be able to do a "conditional acceptance". Allow kids to take classes for one semester, while also working at the Literacy Center. If they get decent grades in the classes, no problem.

However, if they fail to make a certain cutoff GPA, they get a counseling meeting with an admissions officer, a professor, and a literacy instructor to figure out what to do next. If things are really bad, perhaps advising (compelling?) the student to take a year off from college and just work with the literacy advisor would be the best move.
Well, you can look that outplacing student straight in the eye and say:

"Wasn't it enough being President for 8 years, Mr. Bush?"
I like the idea of forwarding them first toward a learning disability group then toward an adult literacy group, so long as it's a real handoff, rather than a brochure, ya know? Because I'm sure a lot of the folks who aren't doing well that you see are suffering from undiagnosed learning disabilities and are being treatably held back.

At any rate, "open admissions" really does have to mean, at some point, "open admissions above some highly reasonable but still extant bar." I can't help thinking that in the real world, there are people who just are not in a place where they can take advantage of the services offered by any given institution, and that's the way it is. You can let in 95% of everyone, 99.5% of everyone, but at some number of standard deviations out, your services aren't going to match their needs, nu?
The real way to justify it is to expland your stable of "avoid outplacement" testing opportunities.

Try essays. Try multiple choice. Try verbal Q&A. Allow them to type, or write.

But you and I both know that while ONE test has little predictive validity, a GROUP of tests is pretty damn accurate. If a student simply can't pass any of the multitude of options you give them, you shouldn't let them in.

Every ultra-low-performing student who claims membership at your CC is pulling down the reputation and future chances of every other student there. You owe it to your existing students not to set tyhe bar too low.
Waaaaaaaaaaaay back in 1988 when I applied to my local CC, our English placement test allowed 3 potential outcomes:

1/The best outcome was to be advised to take English I, the basic college composition course. This course counted toward earninga degree.

2/The next was to be advised to take Basic English, which was slightly remedial and stressed basic writing skills; as I recall, it did not count for degree-granting credit. It sevred as a functional pre-req for English I.

3/The least desirable was to take Remedial English (I actually forget the real name). It stressed all the fundamentals of reading and punctuation and such, and likewise did not count for degree credit. It was a pre-req for Basic English.

Looking back, this somehow may explain the high drop-out rate if a student was incapable of performing in other coursework. After all, aren't English skills necessary for doing well in every course?

Perhaps one viable option for those who do not qualify for "basic college composition" or the "remedial English" class would be to simply place them in the remedial class but only allow provisional enrollment in the CC. If a student MUST only focus on their remedial work, I would think they would be more likely to succeed at gaining competency in the basics necessary for college-level work.

That option supports the CC's mission statement without leading the student on and mis-using resources [both the student's and the CC's]. After all, Higher Ed offers equal access and opportunity; it does not guarantee a degree.

Now if only my Big City Research U undergrads understood that...
How about letting them take remedial English - if they pass, all fine and good. Not all people test well. But if they fail, they have to take one year off from school and complete a GED level course or one from the local literary council before they can enroll again.
I agree with other commenters here to check for learning disabilities and expand the office of learning disabilities' outreach range. Also, when I tutored at one of those private tutoring franchises, every student admitted was given a battery of vision and hearing tests in addition to LD tests, just to rule out any physical problems.

To qualify as a learning disability, however, the person has to have average or above-average intelligence ... which brings up the question of students with cognitive problems and _below_ average intelligence and where they fit in an open access community college.

Oh, and as CCPhysicist points out, sometimes the student who only places into remedial with multiple tries is the worse case. I've seen some students retake and retake English 1 with different instructors, semester after semester, before getting kicked out of the school and have to pay back loans. It's heartbreaking.
Hello, Dean Dad! I'm a recent high school graduate from a graduating class of seventy-five students. I'd like to comment on your dilemma.

The English writing problem was very prevalent inside my high school. There were three English teachers.They all had very different ways of teaching and very different aspects of how English should be taught.

The first teacher didn't really care about the students individually. She wanted to make sure all assignments were done and that the grade book was always showing many assignments.

The second teacher often contradicted herself, but did care to a certain degree about the students when her mood swings weren't taking place.

The third teacher, I felt, was awesome. He has a masters degree and teaches as an adjunct professor at both a community and private college about an hour away from the high school. The problem with this teacher, though, is that he had his favorite students. I'm not saying I was one of them, but I liked him a lot. He knew what he was talking about and made it clear to everyone that he felt the country is spiraling downwards in regards to English writing.

In the end, the only teacher who really taught anyone was the third teacher. No, he didn't teach all students, but he taught the ones who really wanted to learn.

So, what's the solution to the problems that high schools pass onto colleges? I know my worst subject is math and I will pay for my lack of knowledge in different mathematical areas once I start college in August.
A quick shout out to "t".

Respect your placement in math, and look forward to (re)learning it from professors who are like your third english teacher. If you test close to the cutoff score for one class, consider taking the lower one so you can master that material and build from A to A. That extra semester of success is better than multiple semesters of repeats if you overplace (see sisyphus' observations above).
Interesting. Dean Dad, you are caught on the horns of more than one dilemma here. The one that caught my eye is that your problem is about outplacing (which is the opposite of placing out of a class, I am gathering) and you used English as the concrete example. The problem, as I read it, is broader than that, and covers any course area that has testing for placement. At my university that includes science and math.

The dilemma is, by providing an example you seem to elicit responses on how to solve the English problem (the specific) rather than the general question at hand.

That said, I would offer my two cents. I don't think it is too harsh to say that different people have different skills (and admittedly some have none) and that not all skill sets are appropriate for college. I would perhaps recommend that rather than view these students at "failing" to get into higher education they are instead finding their way to another perhaps more fulfilling vocation.

I was recently reminded by a former colleague currently living in Europe that the model over there is to place folks at a much younger age into tracks for their livelihood. I am not in favor of that, personally, since at age 14 I had no idea what I wanted to do, and never would have suspected I would be "here."

Perhaps it is time for that bigger discussion--does every American (in fact, every human) have a "right" to a college education? And if so--why?
Dean, the answer is to provide students who need remediation (access) to instructional tools, while allowing students who do not need remediation (access) to learning opportunities that are appropriate for their abilities, even if both kinds of students share the same classroom.

I might suggest that you look at some assessment instruments that provide holistic and analytic scores that also have an instructional component related to how well students perform on their assessments. A single test score can only "suppose" that learning has taken place, but a test that will link students into appropriate local learning resources will reveal the "process" of student learning, which is one trend within the national assessment movement.

Though I work for a company that provides such instruments and learning tools to colleges, I have substantial experience working in the Community College Environment at the Dean's level. Furthermore, one third of my dissertation addressed the issues surrounding student remediation and developmental education and placement testing.

If you would like a real solution to your delimma, please feel free to contact me by phone or email. I may not necessarily come back to this blog site.

Tim Self, Ed.D.
(214) 738-8989
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