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.