Stop Calling Students “Unprepared”!

me and Michelle at the 2015 ALP Conference
conference selfie

I might have mentioned before that I sometimes don’t like conferences. I might have also mentioned that conferences about teaching are usually pretty good (mostly because I love talking to teachers).

The conference I just got back from was fucking incredible.

It was the conference of the Accelerated Learning Project, or ALP. Accelerated learning can mean a lot of things, but for the ALP, it means (usually) reducing the time it takes for community college students to get into college level courses.

More than half of community college students are placed into English and math courses that are below college level. We call these students “unprepared,” shake our heads at why students have such low skills, chastise the high schools that give students such bad preparation. But the truth is, most of the students placed into these courses are not incapable of doing college-level work.

In fact, the methods we use to determine who is ready for college courses are horribly flawed. Most colleges use multiple choice tests. Studies have shown that these tests are not valid predictors of student ability. One of the most common tests, Compass, was just discontinued this month because its creator, ACT, determined that the test didn’t predict how students would do in college.

My colleagues and I have taken the placement test given at our college. When the counselors asked us which questions students should get right in order to be prepared for college English, we couldn’t tell them. The questions seemed to have no connection to anything we actually teach. One section in particular baffled me. The directions said, “For the following questions, we will ask you to rewrite sentences in your head.”

So I knew the placement system was bad. In particular, I knew it was bad for the following reasons:

  • It prolongs the time the student will spend in college.
  • It costs the students more money.
  • It discourages students, many of whom drop out rather than face multiple levels needed just to join an actual college course.
  • It sends a message of inadequacy and unwelcome to students.
  • It underestimates the abilities of many or possibly most students.
  • It sets low expectations.
  • It disproportionately places minority, poor, and female students into below-college-level courses.

Another problem with having multiple levels of below-college-level courses is what is called the pipeline effect. As the course sequence to get to college-level classes becomes longer and longer, more and more students leak out of the pipe and never make it through. Every added level that a student needs to take exponentially reduces their chance of reaching a college level course. For example, consider 100 students placed two levels below college-level English. Imagine that 80% of students pass their course and advance to the next course each semester.

100 students enroll in 2 levels below Freshman Comp.
80 students enroll in 1-level below Freshman Comp.
64 students enroll in Freshman Comp.

Only 64% of students get a chance to take the college courses that they had in mind when they enrolled for college.  And these are the best possible circumstances. Eighty percent success is much higher than average in these courses (typical success might be more like 40-60%). Also, not every student who passes the course will enroll in the subsequent course. So the actual numbers of students who never make it through the system are much worse. Of course, some do repeat the course and eventually move forward, but many do not, discouraged by the seemingly endless road ahead of them. Many schools have more than two levels below college-level; four or five levels is not uncommon. 

These numbers are particularly disturbing when you consider that many or most of these students were placed incorrectly by their placement tests. And under-placed students are at great risk of dropping out because of boredom and frustration.

I already knew all this before the conference. That’s why I went: to learn how we can change our system to not place students in lower-than-necessary courses. But the conference made me realize how dire this problem is, and how many students might be wasting their time and money, getting discouraged, and/or dropping out of school because they have been incorrectly placed by a standardized test.

When more students are allowed into college-level English right away, success rates for college English go up, not down.  The following graph shows how many students pass freshman English (the first college-level course) at Butte College. Butte changed from one standardized placement test to another a few years ago. When they gave the new test, they found it placed about twice as many students into college-level English as the previous test had. The college decided to let these placements stand, to see what happened. You might expect that a smaller percent of students would be able to pass college English, since more “unprepared” students were allowed in. But in fact, the opposite happened.

graph of college English completion rates at Butte College
From “Let Icarus Fly: The Four Cornerstones of Gateway Course Completion and the “Re-imagination” of Student Capacity” by John J. Hetts. His research is incredible. Presentation here: http://goo.gl/ArRysg

When students were placed higher, many more students were able to pass college English within two years of taking their first English class. This means that most of the so-called unprepared students were actually able to pass college English and did not need the extra, preparation classes. (The chart breaks the students down by race because the lower placement of non-white students is a particular area of concern). 

For students who do need extra help, colleges can offer a tutoring or support class that takes place the same semester as college English, rather than before it. That way, students get support for their schoolwork, but aren’t prevented from taking college classes.

The best thing about going to a conference about a topic like this is I got to meet lots of amazing teachers who really care about students, about treating them with respect as adults, about not making unfair judgments about them, about making sure they have access to education and that they are truly learning when they are in our classes. It’s amazing to see how many people believe in this model of education, and even more amazing to see the organizers of the conference, who are willing to travel the country fighting for equal educational opportunity for all students. 

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