Sunday, April 22, 2012

Placing Thousands of Students Quickly

How do you know if a student needs remediation?

It isn’t as straightforward as it sounds.  

Most community colleges require entering students to take standardized placement tests in math and English.  If the student scores below a certain cutoff, s/he is shunted into developmental courses.  Depending on how far below the cutoff she scores, she may be shunted into two or three semesters’ worth of developmental coursework, nearly doubling the anticipated time to graduation.  (Of course, graduation rates of students who start out at the lowest levels of developmental coursework are far lower than students who don’t.)  

In many cases, the students are referred directly to testing upon initial admission, with no opportunity to review for the test.  My college, like many, uses a test mandated by the state, so we don’t have the option of changing it or disregarding it.  

It’s frustrating.  Last year, when we started looking at restructuring (shortening) the developmental math sequence, one math professor here looked at student performance in existing developmental classes and compared it with placement test results.  He found no correlation.  In other words, the test scores offered absolutely no predictive value.

Yet we’re still required to use them.

It’s easy to condemn placement tests.  They carry all of the flaws of any high-stakes standardized test, and they don’t even help in the aggregate.  

But condemning the tests doesn’t solve the underlying problem.  When you have thousands of new students showing up in a compressed timeframe, ranging in age from fresh out of high school to retirement, and you need to place them all quickly, what do you do?

Small, selective places have the option of doing granular reviews of high school grades, and/or of simply turning away students who aren’t prepared to jump right in to college level math.  That’s fine for them, but it doesn’t work for a larger, open-admissions setting.  We don’t have the staffing to do that, and even if we did, it’s not clear that it would make sense for older students.  (I last took advanced math in the 1980’s.  Drop an exam from that class in front of me now, cold, and I wouldn’t have a clue what to do.)  

Alternately, we could allow students to select their own classes.  (There are times when I lean this way myself.)  The danger there, though, is that students will badly overestimate their own abilities and quickly wash out of college-level classes.  In the meantime, though, they will have taken seats that could have gone to students who might have succeeded.  The libertarian ideal of “let them fail” falsely assumes that the cost of failure accrues only to the student; unfortunately, the student who took up a seat deprived another student of that seat.  Given a scarcity of seats, we have a responsibility to allocate them as wisely as we can.  (One could also argue that “let them fail” represents a waste of financial aid, which is largely tax-funded.)  

There’s also the annoying political reality that “let them fail” would lead, in the short term, to even higher attrition rates.  In an era in which attrition is assumed to be the college’s fault, that would amount to institutional suicide.

In the short term, the easiest and most prudent approach is probably the small-bore solution of finding a test that actually tells you something, preferably with students getting an opportunity to review ahead of time.  The more radical solutions of embedded remediation or just letting them fail would either take years to develop, as in the former, or require a political sea change, as in the latter.  

Is there a better way?  Wise and worldly readers, have you seen (or come up with) a reasonably fast and efficient way to place thousands of students at the right level in a short time?