College Readiness

Many Community College Students Are Not Prepared for College-Level Work, Report Shows

The idea that a single placement test should determine a student's readiness for college courses is getting a makeover with the release of a new report from the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. So is the value placed on standard developmental or remedial coursework in student success.

Researchers examined the responses to three surveys conducted by the center from some 70,000 community college students at more than 150 U.S. institutions and about 4,500 community college faculty respondents from 56 institutions.

As the report, "Expectations Meet Reality: The Underprepared Student and Community Colleges," stated, while almost nine in 10 students (86 percent) believe that they're academically prepared for the college they're attending, nearly seven in 10 (68 percent) actually end up taking at least one developmental course. That includes a sizable portion of students (40 percent) who graduated from high school with an A-level grade point average.

Across the spectrum of self-reported high school GPAs, most students were obligated to take placement tests before they could register for classes. More than 9 in 10 students with a GPA of C or lower faced this requirement, as did 87 percent of B students and 81 percent of A students.

Yet, the researchers noted, "emerging evidence" has indicated that some of those students placed into developmental education classes could actually bypass that coursework and go straight to credit-bearing college-level work if they had the right kinds of supports. For example, while less than half (44 percent) of student respondents said an advisor had helped them set their academic goals, the report stated that when advisors help students develop academic plans, they're "more likely to succeed."

The report offers eight "innovative" approaches beyond or combined with standard developmental classes that should be considered by community colleges as a way to shorten the "bridge" between developmental education and graduation.

  • Running "corequisite" programs. In this scenario the student taking a developmental course also enrolls in a higher-level class on the same subject and frequently taught by the same instructor. As the report explained, "The paired courses create a cohort of developmental students who work with stronger students in the higher-level class and receive focused attention in the developmental class. The approach accelerates progression through developmental education, and data from Indiana, Tennessee, and West Virginia show dramatic gains from using it."
  • Redesigning math. Rather than placing everybody into the same math courses, this approach puts STEM students into college-level algebra and students studying non-STEM fields into other kinds of classes, such as statistics or quantitative reasoning.
  • Trying accelerated developmental courses. Schools redesign the developmental sequence to speed up the time it takes for a student to complete the developmental classes. Frequently, that redesign goes along with a change in instructional practices too.
  • Using computer-assisted math. Alongside the development course, the student does self-paced study on the computer, receiving support from instructors, tutors and other faculty.
  • Pairing developmental education with workplace training. This model helps the student to build up his or her academic skills while advancing toward a credential and developing job skills.
  • Partnering with high schools. Under this arrangement colleges offer summer "bridge" or other transition programs to help students prepare for their upcoming college experiences.
  • Providing placement test preparation. The researchers found that students with better high school grades are more likely to prepare for placement tests. Experiments at Passaic County Community College in New Jersey and Washington State Community College in Ohio, profiled in the report, suggested positive results for students headed into developmental courses.
  • Assessing readiness through more than just one placement exam. A group of colleges in several states is experimenting with using a "hierarchy of measures" to put students into the right courses.

Interestingly, the research found that while more than half of faculty members use some form of early assessment to determine their students' preparedness, when they find somebody under-prepared, only 6 percent of faculty recommend a change — whether it be a different course or dropping out altogether. Forty-nine percent of faculty said they recommend that the student use tutoring or other support services; 34 percent said they adjust their course pedagogy or approach.

The report's authors encouraged colleges to use their own data to update their processes and to continue evaluating success over time in order to redesign the educational pathways they provide for students. "There is no silver bullet," they acknowledged. "Therefore, there is much work to be done as the field creates and refines new models of assessment, placement, and delivery of developmental education."

The report and supporting materials are available for download on the website of the Center for Community College Student Engagement here.

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.