I-Team: Schools Look at New Placement Techniques After Study Says Tests Fail

A high percentage of incoming students at local colleges are being required to take remedial courses, but a new study says the fault lies with the testing that puts them in those classes, not the students themselves.

Hector Paez did well in high school -- so he never expected to take remedial classes when he started his first year at Nassau Community College.

"I was working hard in school, so I thought I wouldn’t have a problem with the placement test,” Paez said.

He was wrong. Paez’s scores were low enough that he was required to take remedial classes in three subjects: reading, writing and math. The coursework earned him no college credits, but ate up a year of his life and his college savings.

He’s not alone. At Nassau Community College, roughly 60 percent of incoming students are required to take one or more remedial courses, according to records obtained by the I-Team. And at other local schools the numbers are even higher. At the City University of New York, for example, an average of 78 percent of incoming students need some remedial coursework.

Experts blame a number of factors, from lax high school graduation standards to students who come from a wide range of academic backgrounds.

But Tom Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College, said another factor is at work. He said the tests students take to determine whether they need remedial classes get unreliable results.

Bailey's research showed that about a third of students who placed into remedial classes could have passed for-credit classes with a grade of B or better.

“Many students are placed by this test into developmental education when they could be successful in college level courses,” Bailey said.

Two tests are used by nearly all the nation’s community colleges: Compass, by ACT, and ACCUPLACER by College Board. According to Bailey's study, more than three quarters of students fail at least one placement test -- 53 percent in match, 55 percent in writing and 22 percent in reading -- and are assigned to remedial classes.

This summer, ACT announced that it will discontinue the Compass test in 2016 because it is “not contributing as effectively to student placement and success as it had in the past."

But College Board stands by its test.

"Research confirms that ACCUPLACER effectively identifies students’ strengths and weaknesses in core subjects -- math, reading, and writing,” a company spokesman wrote in an e-mail. “We are aware of research … showing that remedial courses don’t propel students towards college completion and we are incorporating this research into our ongoing development of diagnostic tools and support models to ensure more students are able to correctly start college in credit-bearing courses.”

Educators at community colleges say they are trying help their students avoid unnecessary coursework. While some schools have lowered the bar on cutoff scores required to pass the placement exam, other colleges are looking to combine these scores with GPAs and high school performance to evaluate a student more holistically.

“There isn't a single instrument that can predict with a high degree of reliability what a student's performance will be so it's important to use multiple measures," said Ken Saunders, executive vice president at Nassau Community College.

CUNY officials say the school is supporting students with a program called CUNY Start, an intensive semester-long program that addresses students’ remedial needs. Enrolling in this program costs $75. That compares with roughly $2,000 per semester for full-time students and $170 per credit for part-time students assigned to take remedial courses.

Donna Linderman, who spearheads the CUNY initiative, said upon completion of the program, 51 percent of students have no remedial needs -- and the remaining have significantly reduced needs.

“Even though our students start a semester behind, we see by the fourth semester that they have overtaken students who matriculated immediately, who had a similar profile," she said.

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