Monday, April 17, 2017

Stakes Aren’t Cheap

Emily Hanford has a good piece in the Washington Monthly on the seemingly inexplicable survival of Accuplacer.  Check it out.

It’s an attempt to answer the question of why a universally criticized placement test manages to survive, despite ample data suggesting its flaws.  

The Accuplacer is a placement test often administered to students during the admission process.  It has several components, each addressing a different skill: reading, writing, arithmetic, and algebra. It typically takes a few hours, and students often take it “cold” or very nearly so.  Colleges use the score on Accuplacer to decide whether students need remediation, and if so, how much.  

As Hanford notes, studies of students who “disobey” their Accuplacer score suggest that despite its name, it isn’t terribly accurate.  More students tend to get shunted into remediation than need it.

That was one of the shocks when I moved from the for-profit world to the community college world.  For the for-profits, retention was a survival issue, so they saved remediation for the very most desperate students.  It was very much the exception.  At most community colleges, including my own, the overwhelming majority of students (usually ⅔ or so) require at least one developmental course.

States and colleges that have experimented with multifactor placement have been able to reduce that proportion and to increase completion rates.  So why don’t we all do that?

In a word, cost.  Both money and time.

The Accuplacer may be deeply flawed, but it’s fast and cheap.  We can get a lot of scores quickly.  For a sector in which many students make up their minds at the last possible moment, and for which budgets have been cut for years, that’s no small thing.

Multifactor placement -- in other words, looking at high school course selection and GPA -- is much more labor-intensive upfront.  It requires getting transcripts, and evaluating them intelligently and quickly enough to get students lined up for the start of classes.  Getting high school transcripts in July or August can be an issue; students who apply to the more selective schools that require transcripts typically do so by April.  Then, even if we get them, we have to compare them.  Selective institutions spend money on staff to do that; historically, most community colleges haven’t, because there was no need to.  Given enough money, we could, but given enough money, we could do a lot of things.  When any full-time hires are at a premium, this need tends to fall to the bottom of the list.

There’s also a real, if somewhat knee-jerk, sense among many faculty that any attempt to allow more students to bypass remediation constitutes a lowering of standards.  Even with data, many resist the attempt on ideological grounds, often accompanied by anecdotes about students who were obviously overmatched in the past.  I understand the impulse: it’s frustrating to get students in 100-level classes who don’t seem to have mastered high school skills.  But it’s also frustrating to see so many students walk away, disgusted at paying for courses that don’t count, when we know statistically that many of them shouldn’t have had to in the first place.

That sense of holding the line on standards -- even arbitrary ones -- gets a perverse boost from legislative fiats in other states.  When Connecticut or Florida decides to restrict remediation legislatively, it just feeds the narrative that barbarians are at the gates. It’s hard to advocate for thoughtful reforms when folks are wondering if they’re Trojan horses for thoughtless ones.  People connect dots, even when they aren’t really connected.

So the Accuplacer lives by a sort of default.  It isn’t terribly accurate, but it’s fast, it’s cheap, and the political battles have already been fought.  Moving beyond it (or tests like it) makes a lot of sense on the policy level, but it requires resources.  You don’t kill zombies without stakes.