What does it really mean to be college ready?

Battle-lines are forming around the issue of remediation for entering college students. It’s a major issue since 41% of all college freshmen and up to 60% of those entering community colleges now find themselves placed in some type of remedial or developmental course in reading, writing, or mathematics (yes, the 3 Rs). These courses are usually non-credit bearing, which means they do not count towards an college degree, but the student must pass them in order to gain entry to the credit bearing courses. This problem has been particularly acute for community colleges which are the main gateway into higher education for increasing numbers of students.

The critics of these programs point out that most students who enter them never actually complete college degrees (Is that true of most students who attempt college period?). Many college faculty argue that re-teaching students information and skills they were supposed to get in 7th through 12th grade should not be the responsibility of the college. Meanwhile, more and more students are being pushed towards the college door—ready or not.

Some of my colleagues counter that they expect entering freshman to have a strong command of the conventions of standard English usage, and lament that so many of them do not. Yet, English grammar is something they have been tested on repeatedly since third grade. Is it coincidental that the need for remediation of entering college freshmen has climbed over the same period that we have imposed more and more standardized testing of students in grades 3 – 11? What should we make of this apparent contradiction: The more we test students in PK-12, the less prepared they are for higher education? It would be easy to fall into some dangerous oversimplification of the problems, as seems to be the case in Connecticut, which recently moved to eliminate funding for all college level remedial programs.

Many of the problems in college remediation programs, including how the students are tested and placed in them, are real and well-documented, but some very big questions also remain unasked and unanswered.

Among those who flock to community college are adult learners whose education may have been interrupted or insufficient for any number of reasons: Some quit school to work and support families; some went into the military or other fields that at the time did not require a college education, and now want to resume their education. Others got into trouble and were kicked out of school as youths or sent to jail; some had major health problems of their own or in their families; some were homeless or transient–moving constantly and missing large chunks of important teaching. Still others went through school, did everything that was asked of them, but not that much was asked of them. Some of the students who come to the college remediation courses have no intention of pursuing a degree, they just want to pick up what they missed or brush up on long forgotten skills in order to better themselves or for job-related reasons. Some have immigrated here and need to learn English (like one woman with a Ph.D from her native country that came to our school recently). I have worked with students in all of these categories and many more.

What should these adults who are missing what we consider to be high-school or lower level skills do? Go back to sit among children? They come to community college because it is their best, and in many cases their only, opportunity to obtain whatever education they need. Certainly, remediation could be done better than it is in most places. Too many college-housed developmental programs take the worst K12 methods and simply put them on a faster-paced, higher-priced system. Taking the remedial work virtually is another option, but many of my adult students tell me they are uncomfortable with taking online classes and prefer face-to-face options

To say that remedial programs are a total failure, however, is not entirely true. Over the past five years, the community college where I teach has been engaged in a detailed study of students who come through our developmental writing program. We’ve meticulously followed the progress of thousands of students, and our preliminary findings suggest that those who complete the developmental writing classes and go on to college level English courses are highly successful.

But our work also suggests a larger problem: That what counts as “college ready” (at least in English/language arts) is not as well-defined or easily measured as we would like to think. Like many schools, our community college uses either a student’s English section subscore on the ACT or a standardized, computer-based placement test (ACCUPLACER) to determine which students need to be placed in remediation. A student who for any reason does not have an ACT score is automatically assigned to developmental courses. On the other end of the spectrum, students with English subtest scores above a politically determined cut score are placed directly into Freshman Composition I. Our own student performance data shows that there is nothing about this cut-score that really indicates whether a student is or is not ready for college level English course. It’s just a speedy and convenient way to filter students into classroom slots. The English section of the ACT does not measure a student’s ability to put his/her ideas together in written form; nor does it test spelling (or several other things). No standardized test can measure everything; some can’t measure even really important things. Students who scored high on these tests are often poor writers; students who scored low were just as likely to be competent writers.

Perhaps the first step in fixing college remedial programs is rethinking what we mean by college ready, coming to a serious consensus; then measuring that readiness in ways that are accurate and effective. For college composition, that would mean: a) allowing teachers to focus more on teaching writing than on test preparation, and using more teacher-evaluated writing assessments. Those are expensive and labor intensive options. Many prefer quicker, cheaper solutions—which is part of how we got where we are now.

Update: Read this feature on one community college and high school in California that took a deeper look at the problem of readiness from Community College Spotlight.

Related categories: