Two new studies from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College have found that community colleges unnecessarily place tens of thousands of entering students in remedial classes — and that their placement decisions would be just as good if they relied on high school grade-point averages instead of standardized placement tests.
The studies address one of the most intractable problems of higher education: the dead end of remedial education. At most community colleges, a majority of entering students who recently graduated from high school are placed in remedial classes, where they pay tuition but earn no college credit. Over all, less than a quarter of those who start in remedial classes go on to earn two-year degrees or transfer to four-year colleges.
The studies, one of a large urban community college system and the other of a statewide system, found that more than a quarter of the students assigned to remedial classes based on their test scores could have passed college-level courses with a grade of B or higher.
“We hear a lot about the high rates of failure in college-level classes at community colleges,” said Judith Scott-Clayton, the author of the urban study and a Teachers College professor of economics and education and senior research associate. “Those are very visible. What’s harder to see are the students who could have done well at college level but never got the chance because of these placement tests.”
The colleges’ use of the leading placement tests — the College Board’s Accuplacer and ACT’s Compass — lead to mistakes in both directions, the studies find, but students going into college-level classes they cannot handle is not as serious as unnecessary remedial placement, which often derails college careers.
Although the placement tests have been widely used since the late 1980s, students rarely understand how much is at stake. Typically, students are told that they need not worry about the tests because they are for placement — and very few colleges encourage them to prepare as they would for a college-entrance exam like the SAT. (Read more.)