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?