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Community-college students often get mired in basic-skills classes

Los Angeles — The three petite, soft-spoken Latinas are all friends. They graduated from Grant High School here, are on one another’s speed dial and share a preference for electric blue.

Los Angeles — The three petite, soft-spoken Latinas are all friends. They graduated from Grant High School here, are on one another’s speed dial and share a preference for electric blue. And all three are stuck in basic-skills courses at Los Angeles Valley College after bombing their college placement exams, in part because they had so little guidance about what would be tested.

“I did bad – I was tired,” says Karina Carrillo, 18. “I was surprised that I had to take so many English classes over – they won’t even count as college credit for two years.”

The experience of Carrillo and her classmates Sonia Ortega and Mariana Casillas at their two-year college reflects a graduation crisis at community colleges – one that President Barack Obama addressed at a White House summit last week. “More than half of those who enter community colleges fail to either earn a two-year degree or transfer to earn a four-year degree,” Obama said.

The stakes of getting stuck in remedial classes and never earning a degree are especially high in California, which is home to the nation’s largest community college system, with 112 campuses and 2.9 million students. Nationally, between 60 and 80 percent are placed in the basic-skills classes Carrillo and her classmates can’t escape, leading many to quit in frustration.

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Remedial education is where far too many community-college students begin and end their careers, and it remains one of the most intractable obstacles to graduation, said Tom Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. Only 31 percent of students placed into remedial math ever get to college-level work, and just half of students referred to remediation of any kind complete the entire sequence, Bailey has found.

The morass of remedial education – Bailey’s research has shown it’s often ineffective, and students who need it drop out at alarming rates – is one reason Obama called for the first-ever White House summit on community colleges, after setting a goal last year of increasing the number of students who earn degrees and certificates from the two-year institutions by five million in the next decade.

The placement tests that determine whether students are ready for college-level work are the first big hurdle to graduation, say the authors of a new study on California community colleges. High-school counselors aren’t advising students about how to prepare for the tests, according to “One-Shot Deal? Students’ Perceptions of Assessment and Course Placement in California’s Community Colleges,” by the education research agency WestEd. And too often, students who likely would have passed if they’d simply reviewed certain math or reading concepts find themselves on the remedial track.

“It wasn’t a test of what you could do, but about what you could remember from a long time ago,” one student who took algebra and geometry in high school told researchers. He was tested on fractions he hadn’t studied for years and placed into basic math.

The study based its findings in part on interviews with 257 students at five California community colleges. Itsheds new light on the poorly understood and often ineffective course-placement structure at the state’s community colleges, which educate three-quarters of its college students. Too often students get little counseling and may have less than a day to formulate their education plans, said Michael Kirst, a professor emeritus at Stanford University.

“At community colleges, people just show up and are processed immediately,” Kirst said. “This raises questions about whether this one-shot assessment is an appropriate measure of what you know and what you don’t know.”

Exam questions often bear no relation to what students learned in high school, the study found. The exams are essentially one-size-fits-all, meaning that students who have small gaps in their knowledge or skills are placed into classes where they actually know most of the material. Some 83 percent of incoming students scored so low that they were placed in remedial math courses that don’t count for college credit, while 72 percent of students tested into remedial English.

“What we found are indications of a broken system. It’s shockingly bad, the lack of completion, and the placement into basic-skills classes, and the amount of time students swirl in these classes,” said Andrea Venezia, a senior research associate at WestEd and a co-author of the study.

Some students also reported having to wait weeks before receiving their scores on placement exams. Many encountered unclear policies about if or when they’d be allowed to retake the exams to pass out of remedial courses, with one school making its students wait three years for a second shot. And most students have nowhere to go to for advice: community-college counselors are swamped with caseloads of hundreds, or even thousands, of students.

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WestEd’s report comes at a time of heightened attention to completion rates at community colleges nationally. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced this week that it’ll invest $35 million over the next five years to boost graduation rates. And last month, U.S. Education Secretary Martha Kanter called remedial education “a barrier to success,” noting that too many students are frustrated and falling out of the system. Business leaders, foundation officials and educators who gathered at the White House this week spent hours discussing ways to dramatically boost graduation rates.

Robert Gabriner, a professor at San Francisco State University who has worked in the community college system for 40 year, agrees with the study’s recommendations that community colleges must find new ways to test incoming students and pinpoint their weaknesses.

“Essentially, where students are placed in the course sequence is their destiny – if you’re placed three levels below in math, eight percent make it up to college-level math,”  Gabriner said.

Some California community colleges say they are starting to provide more outreach to high-school students through the Internet and summer programs. Cerritos College in Norwalk is creating a weeklong summer program in which students receive advice about courses, as well as tips about how to be successful students.

“If we’re serious, if the president is serious, about raising the completion rate, you can’t do that unless you figure out how to get students in the community colleges ready to take on college-level work,” said Mary Perry, a deputy director at EdSource, an independent, nonprofit research group.

Sonia Ortega, an 18-year-old freshman at Los Angeles Valley College, said she wishes she’d known what to expect on the placement exam. “It was hard,” Ortega said. “We had just come from high school, and I knew I saw it already but I couldn’t get it right.”

Jon Marcus and Liz Willen contributed to this article, which originally appeared in The Hechinger Report. Beth Hawkins is on assignment; the Learning Curve occasionally features articles from one of our media partners.