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The real lesson about education failings

December 2, 2018

A new report on remedial placement in Connecticut’s state universities and community colleges has the media drawing the predictable, but wrong, lessons: Connecticut public schools are failing and we need more “accountability.”

The headlines are sensational — almost half of Connecticut public school graduates who attend college may not even “know how to read their own diplomas.” Some outlets suggested “raising standards,” and questioned Connecticut’s lack of a standardized high school exit exam.

However, a careful examination of the report, the research on college remediation and the challenges facing our most vulnerable students leads to different conclusions.

The report was put out by P20WIN, a joint collaboration among the Connecticut State Department of Education, the Board of Regents for Higher Education, and the Department of Labor. It looked at Connecticut high school graduates from 2010, 2011 and 2012 who entered Connecticut state universities, excluding the University of Connecticut, and community colleges. Those students represent about one-third of Connecticut public high school graduates.

During the years analyzed in the report, the basis for placement in remedial classes in Connecticut’s community colleges and state universities was one standardized test: in the community colleges, it was the Accuplacer test, and the state universities used the SAT or ACT.

Comprehensive large-scale studies have shown that the use of these standardized tests alone for determining placement mis-assigns a significant number of students to remedial courses — students who would have succeeded in credit-bearing college courses. One study of tens of thousands of students demonstrated that that a third of students were mis-assigned to remedial English courses and a quarter of students were mis-assigned to remedial math. This study also proved that a student’s high school GPA was a much better predictor of a student’s proper placement than these standardized tests.

The ACT and SAT have also been shown in numerous nationwide studies to be a poor predictor of college success — and consistently inferior as a predictor than one’s high school GPA.

Of the one-third of Connecticut high school graduates, the report claimed that almost half, so about 16 percent of graduates, were placed in remedial courses based on one standardized test. It is highly likely that almost a third of those students were mis-assigned to remedial courses. Thus, the headlines should have read that maybe 10 percent of Connecticut high school graduates need remedial courses in college. Less sensational than claiming that 10,000 students cannot read their own diplomas, but more accurate.

One lesson ignored by the media is that standardized tests are deeply flawed measures and do real harm. The research has shown college remediation does not increase the rate of college success. Worse, mis-assignment to remedial courses in college increases the likelihood of dropping out by eight percentage points.

As the National Research Council has shown, more than a decade of test-based accountability has not moved the needle at all on student achievement. Constant assessment, often inaccurate, always incomplete, coupled with punitive consequences, is a proven recipe for failure.

Who are the students who are underprepared? A Manchester Community College professor, Patrick Sullivan, gives some insight in a paper he wrote recently about his experience teaching a remedial course in Connecticut. Many of the students have faced major challenges outside the classroom that affected their learning throughout their career, such as interrupted education in their home countries, language barriers, housing and food insecurity, violence, trauma and other obstacles associated with living in poverty. Many now have to juggle jobs and children alongside their studies.

These are the many of the same challenges children in Connecticut’s neediest school districts encounter — the ones that need to be mitigated in order for students to learn successfully. As Justice Richard Palmer noted in his dissent in the CCJEF school funding decision: “Residents of our poorest communities, even those hungry to learn, may have to overcome a host of obstacles before they are able to attend to fractions and Fitzgerald.”

Research has shown that providing systemic academic and social supports to students has long-term positive impacts on student outcomes. It stands to reason that a significant number of our underprepared college students would have been more prepared had they been provided the supports, during their public school career, that the CCJEF court found were severely lacking in our poorest districts.

The second lesson from this report should be, then, that rather than doubling down on failed test-based accountability, we should be investing our efforts and our resources in providing supports proven to help our neediest students learn and live successfully.

Wendy Lecker is a columnist for the Hearst Connecticut Media Group and is senior attorney at the Education Law Center.

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