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Students Unprepared for Community College Entrance Tests

When a student does poorly on a community college assessment test, it can be the beginning of the end of his or her career in higher education. Too often, students take the test unprepared, end up in developmental education courses, become discouraged, and never finish their degrees.

A report looking at student experiences with assessment and course placement in California Community Colleges highlights the lack of testing awareness and gaps in the transition process. Mike Kirst, professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, was a chief consultant to the report, One Shot Deal, a two-year research study funded by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and Walter S. Johnson Foundation.

"Typically, community college students think they are ready for college because they passed their graduation exit exam from high school," says Kirst, which in California means having 6-8th grade math skills, 8-10th grade English proficiency, and passing with at least 55 percent. "They graduate with one set of standards and then face a whole different set of standards in the placement exams," he says.

Unlike a four-year school, which might have an orientation that lasts several days, students at community colleges are often processed in a day or less, including a placement exam that they never studied for. They don't realize it's a "one-shot deal" with high stakes that will determine their course schedule, says Kirst.

"Students didn't know what was on it, never practiced for it," and the content is not aligned with what they learned in high school, he says of the report findings. Although this research focused on California, Kirst says other studies have found similar situations on community colleges campuses elsewhere.

Students then are often required to pay for developmental classes that don't count toward their degree and extend their time in school. Starting out in these classes puts students at a disadvantage &mdash with less than a quarter going on to complete a degree or certificate, according to research at the Community College Research Center at Columbia University.

The solution rests, in part, with better communication with students about the rigor of college-level courses and testing earlier, says Thad Nodine, an independent researcher and one of the report's authors.

"K-12 educators and policymakers need to work with community colleges to provide these assessments in high school, during the junior year. That will be an eye-opener for students who are not prepared for college-level classes," says Nodine. "For students who need to catch up in math or English, high schools need to provide that coursework during the senior year."

Assessment and placement should be part of a continuous process of learning that starts as early as middle or high school, the report recommends. Students could also benefit from better counseling in community college to help them discuss their test results, course options, and develop an education plan. Despite tight resources on campuses, the report also encourages innovation and new approaches to improving the community college experience. Perhaps, the influx of Gates Foundation money will provide some of these answers.

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