Removing a Bottleneck to Community College Success

William Gomez Perreira and his mother, Ana, live in Chelsea, Mass., a working class city hard by Boston, that sends a good number of students to community colleges.

The students -- largely low income and minority -- face a serious obstacle once they set foot on the community college campus. Many score poorly on Accuplacer, the national English-and-math placement exam given by most community college, and are therefore forced to spend precious time and money in remedial classes. Students often run short on funds and patience and wind up living school without the requisite degree or skills.

Fortunately for William, his high school offered a course that enables the best students to test out of Accuplacer and skip the remedial classes. "RAMP Up," developed by Chelsea High School, Bunker Hill Community College and FUEL Education, a Boston-based education non-profit, allows high scoring students to not only fulfill high school graduation requirements, but also earn course credit at Bunker Hill.

William had taken Accuplacer before RAMP Up and scored lowly on the math portion, a result that normally would have forced him to take a no-credit math remediation course in community college. But instead, with an "A" in RAMP Up, he instead was able to start taking core classes toward his degree, and more importantly did not have to waste his federal Pell grant on remedial courses that wouldn't get him closer to graduation.

Between 28 and 40 percent of the 2.5 million students who take Accuplacer every year score low enough that they are required to take at least one remedial class, and national surveys reveal fewer than a quarter of those students ever graduate. This is more than heartbreaking -- it is costly as states and students lose about $2.3 billion spent on remediation each year.

In Massachusetts, the sheer number of students placed in remediation also raises questions about the value of the standardized high school assessment MCAS. Every public school graduate in the Bay State has already passed this exam, but there has been no attempt to align these high stakes tests. This amounts to educational malpractice.

While four-year college-bound students are given several years to prepare for the SAT, students headed for community college are often blindsided by the Accuplacer. You don't generally see Accuplacer posters adorning guidance department walls or Accuplacer prep kits in stores or online. Yet it can be reasonably argued that the Accuplacer is more impactful than the SAT. More students take the Accuplacer than the SAT every year and it can have enormous influence over who graduates and who doesn't by blocking access to credit courses from community college.

For Chelsea High seniors headed to community college, the RAMP Up course has been a game changer. The course is a collaborative effort among Chelsea High, BHCC, the federal TRiO program, and FUEL Education, a community-based nonprofit that provides low-income parents with the resources and information they need to send their children to college. Part of what makes the program so unique and effective is that the testing and remediation take place right in the high school, not in college. When William enrolled in the course, 30 students took the course along with him, and a whopping 93 percent passed. The previous year the number of students passing was 72 percent.

William's mother, Ana, participated in FUEL Education meetings at Chelsea High, which taught her about college access while providing incentives to encourage her to save for William's college expenses. The FUEL facilitators stressed the importance of the RAMP Up course, and she turned William on to it. This is an all-too-rare example of a low-income immigrant family taking control of their child's education.

Nationally, more states are trying to remove the Accuplacer bottleneck that keeps a college degree out of reach for students like William. In Indiana, for example, every student must take the test, and based on performance, is given coursework to improve. These innovative programs should be emulated and improved upon. It is too important when the data makes it clear what an obstacle Accuplacer can be to so many students.

Community colleges should recognize course results as an alternative to the Accuplacer. This would go a long way in removing a bottleneck along the graduation pathway for students, like William, who need it the most.