Behold the humble Accuplacer exam.
Nothing nips college careers in the bud quite so fatally. So with recent national fussing about improving college completions rates, this obscure placement test needs our attention.
The Accuplacer is the sister of the more famous, more highly-regarded SAT — the Scholastic Assessment Test. Their parent company is the College Board.
Never heard of it? Community colleges administer tens of thousands of them every year. (There are similar, but lesser-used tests.) The kicker is that bombing the little-known Accuplacer is a bigger obstacle to a college diploma than poor scores on the SAT, ACT, or any high-stakes exams required by some states to get a diploma.
Let's consider the all-too-common example of Suzi Q. She frolicked through high school, more concerned with social life than academics. Homework often suffered, but she was a "good," meaning a compliant student. And her ability to cram for tests helped her earn a 3.0. So with the guidance of a counselor, Suzi decides to pursue a healthcare career, perhaps to become a phlebotomist or radiology technician, which require an Associates Degree.
In theory, a high school diploma certifies that, at a minimum, a graduate has 10th-grade skills. High schools give the state tests required by No Child Left Behind at the end of 10th or beginning of 11th grade to assess the quality of kids' 10th-grade skills.
In reality, diplomas are unreliable certifications. Some state exams are so undemanding that passing them means little. Some states award diplomas without requiring exams. Making students pass tests to get a diploma is controversial because it promotes dropping out and denies diplomas to seriously-challenged kids. States haven't quite figured this one out yet.
So colleges need the Accuplacer to assess those 10th-grade skills.
Suzi could have skipped the test if she'd done well on her SATs. But SATs cost students money, so she didn't want to try again, especially since the SAT is long, hard and associated with 4-year colleges.
But no one mentioned that the Accuplacer was waiting for her. Her college advisor tells her it's not a test anyone can pass or fail, but that's kind of a lie, as you'll see.
Accuplacer has a 55-minute writing test, and then shorter, 20-question tests in reading, sentence structure and math, that students finish at their own pace. The battery takes between two and two-and-a-half hours.
According to the 2011 report, "Assessing Developmental Assessment in Community Colleges", about 65 percent of the students who take this test nationally need at least one remedial course.
Last year 61 percent of the 2116 students who entered Community College of Rhode Island needed at least one remedial course. The rate at North Carolina community colleges was 64 percent. In New York's City University system, CUNY, the rate was 75 percent, with about 25 percent needing all three remedial courses.
American community colleges are the land of second chances, so some students are coming back to school after a hiatus. But most are straight from high school.
Suzi's results were disappointing. Her reading was okay, writing not so much, and math was a disaster. Her college advisor explains that before she can take courses that count toward a degree, she'll have to take a remedial writing course and a low-level math course. Assuming she passes both of those, she'll still have to take an advanced math course to get the foundational skills for credit-bearing classes.
Many students – some colleges report as many as half – never even register for the remedial classes. End of college-career story.
Suzi can re-take the Accuplacer in a few weeks to see if she can get a better score, but the semester will already be underway.
So she registers anyway, without fully understanding that she'll be paying course fees for a semester or more without really being a college-level student.
Statistically, Suzi will probably walk away well before getting that Associates Degree.
As is always the case with education, everyone is to blame for this mess. Poor parenting, the media, and all sorts of cultural problems drag down academics. Suzi herself is hardly blameless. But she could have gotten help, or at least a heads-up from her high school.
The Accuplacer sample questions show that the test is not very hard. You'll do fine if percentages and subject-verb agreement are fairly deep in your blood. But rusty basic skills will send you into a black hole of remediation.
Accuplacer scores are good for two years, after which students need retesting.
So high schools should give the Accuplacer at the beginning of kids' senior year. Promise them that if they prove themselves "proficient" on the state exams, they can skip the Accuplacer. Good incentive. Then those who still end up having to take it will either pass and have a ticket to credit-bearing courses, or they'll know where they stand and have time to do something about it.
In an ideal world, the high-school diploma would take care of this problem.
But in the meantime, it would be a favor to the kids and to our need for more college graduates to bring the Accuplacer out of the shadows, where it has been a stumbling block for far too long.
Julia Steiny is a freelance columnist whose work also regularly appears at GoLocalProv.com . She is the founding director of the Youth Restoration Project, a restorative-practices initiative, currently building a demonstration project in Central Falls, Rhode Island. She consults for schools and government initiatives, including regular work for The Providence Plan for whom she analyzes data. For more detail, see juliasteiny.com or contact her at [email protected].