How a Little-Known Standardized Test Harms Community College Students

Apr 22, 2017 by

The Accuplacer test funnels students into costly remedial classes that many probably don’t need.

by Emily Hanford –

The nation’s colleges have made their admission decisions, and now, as college signing day draws near, high school seniors around the country are making their own decisions on where to attend.

But most students will not be heading to an ivy-covered campus in the fall; in fact, today’s undergraduate is more likely to be a working adult at a community college. And for that student, the future does not depend so much on an admissions committee poring over grades, teacher recommendations, and extracurricular activities. Instead, it may very well depend on a single standardized test score—and not the one you’re thinking of.

The test that matters for community college students isn’t the SAT. It’s one they’ve probably never heard of—let alone prepared for—until they’re told to walk down the hall and take it. The test most of these students take is called the Accuplacer. It’s a multiple-choice math and English test that schools use to decide who’s actually ready for college classes. Get into an elite school like Harvard and no one’s going to question your ability to do college-level work. But community colleges need some way to assess the academic skills of incoming students because pretty much anyone can walk into a community college and sign up to start a degree.

That doesn’t mean you’ll be allowed into college-level classes, though. If you don’t do well on the Accuplacer, you’re probably going to be put in what are known as developmental, or remedial, classes. More than two-thirds of community college students end up in remediation.

Some need to be there. But many probably don’t.

The most recent evidence comes from an analysis published in September by the National Center for Education Statistics. NCES took a big set of data on college students and determined who was weakly prepared for college, moderately prepared, or strongly prepared, based not just on standardized test scores but also on high school GPA and the highest level of completed math coursework. (Research shows high school grades are a better predictor of how a student will do in college than test scores.) Then NCES looked at who ended up in remedial classes. Nearly half of the community college students who were strongly prepared by the researchers’ measure ended up in remediation.


Ending up in a remedial class when you don’t need it is bad news. The classes cost money, don’t count for college credit, and add to the time it takes to get a degree. And while the NCES analysis found that remedial classes provided benefits for some weakly prepared students, they did nothing for strongly or moderately prepared students. In fact, those students were less likely to get bachelors’ degrees because more than a quarter of them didn’t finish their remedial classes.

Why would this be? It’s not entirely clear, but researchers have some ideas. If you’re already juggling a busy life that may include both work and kids, college probably seemed like a precarious proposition to begin with. Having to sit through classes that aren’t “real” college courses might be what tips you into thinking this whole college thing just isn’t worth it. Plus, the longer the road to a degree, the more likely a life event—such as losing a job or a kid getting sick—could derail you. And people get discouraged. “A lot of students would say, ‘You know, I’m not even sure that I am college material,’” said Peter Adams, who taught developmental writing at a community college for 36 years.

Source: Washington Monthly | How a Little-Known Standardized Test Harms Community College Students

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