Community College Matriculation Is A One Shot Experience With Many Problems

October 11th, 2010

Incoming community college students in California typically walk in cold—unprepared and unaware of the stakes—when taking tests that determine whether they can enroll in college-level courses.

            One student said about the assessment experience: “I thought it was one of those tests that you take just to see which kind of field they were going to recommend. And then I found out it places you in classes.”

            Another student reported: “The woman at the test center said, ‘It doesn’t matter how you place. It’s just to see where you are.’ Looking back, that’s not true. It’s really important.”

            Students who did not perform well on these assessments described being disappointed and frustrated when they learned they had to take remedial courses that did not count toward a certificate or degree.

            Community colleges have processes in place for orientation, counseling, assessment, and course placement. But students, by and large, viewed the practices as a “one-shot deal.” At their college, the students typically walked into a testing center, took a test, received a printout of their results, and registered for courses—usually on the same day. For many students, the process was over at that point. Many did not meet with a counselor to discuss their test results, course-taking options, or an educational plan.

            In general, students did nothing to prepare for the tests—they didn’t know how to. Some students were aware in advance that they would be taking an assessment when they enrolled in college, but very few were aware of the content. Afterwards, they said the tests were not connected to the academic work they had recently completed in high school.

            These findings are drawn from One Shot Deal, a two-year research study funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, with additional support from the Walter S. Johnson Foundation. The study focused on students’ experiences with assessment and course placement practices used across California’s community colleges.

            “In the national debates about improving college readiness and increasing college completion, student voices have largely been absent,” said Kathy Reeves Bracco, senior research associate at WestEd and one of the report’s authors. “Our systems of K-12 education and postsecondary education are not connected and it’s students who pay the price by not being prepared for college.”

            Although every community college reported that it did outreach to high schools, students said that, when they were in high school, they thought they didn’t need to do anything extra to prepare for community college—that graduating from high school was sufficient preparation.

            One student said, “[In high school] they don’t tell you that the a-g requirements are required [to prepare for community college]. After you graduate from high school, you figure that out: ‘Oh, these classes they told me were options weren’t actually [just] options.’ ”

            Another said, “At my high school, they said junior college is at the bottom. I always thought junior college was for people who really didn’t care about school and weren’t going to do anything with their life.”

            The study also found substantial variance in community college assessment and placement policies statewide, as well as confusion among students about the policies at their colleges. Examples include:

  • Local policies regarding the waiting periods for students to retake their assessments ranged from no waiting period (immediate retakes) to three years.
  • Colleges varied in the “multiple measures” they used in addition to test scores to determine course placement, and many counselors did not know what these measures were or how they were used.
  • Cut scores—the test scores acceptable for degree-level classes—varied across the state, indicating that there is no agreement about what college readiness is.
  • Some colleges accepted placement scores from other colleges, while others did not.
  • The levels of remedial or basic skills classes were different across the state.

            These findings must be framed by the acknowledgment that community colleges were operating under stringent budget conditions before the economic recession and have since lost staff and funding for matriculation services.

The report can be accessed at: http://WestEd.org/oneshotdeal.

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