How the Other Half Tests
April 21, 2013 6:56 PM   Subscribe

"Students are told, reassuringly, that there is no such thing as failing the Accuplacer or the COMPASS. But there is: students who score below a certain number, or “cut score,” flunk the test for credit-bearing work." The consequences can be dramatic.
posted by eotvos (55 comments total) 17 users marked this as a favorite
 
Note: the article linked to by "dramatic" is actually just an abstract for an article behind a paywall.
posted by JHarris at 7:18 PM on April 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is there any bigger than bite-size part of our educational system than isn't a long-form article worth full of clusterfuck? These are absymal, kill-it-with-fire kind of numbers:

In 2010, Bailey and colleagues Dong Wook Jeong and Sung-Woo Cho led a study that looked at tens of thousands of community college students who scored low on placement tests and other measures but ignored the advice or instruction to take remedial classes and instead enrolled directly in a for-credit course. A full 71 percent passed the for-credit course. That’s not much lower than the 77 percent pass rate for all students who took those for-credit courses. And it’s only slightly lower than the pass rate for students who first took and completed remedial courses. As the researchers note, however, many who start in remedial classes either drop out or fail before they ever take a credit-bearing course. Factor that in, and only about 27 percent of those who agreed to take remedial courses ultimately passed for-credit courses, as opposed to the 72 percent who blew off remediation.
posted by crayz at 7:25 PM on April 21, 2013 [11 favorites]


When I decided to go back to school the COMPASS placed me in a remedial math class. It was silly. My instructor caught on in a couple weeks and placed me in a Calc II class instead. The COMPASS was the first exam I had taken in almost a decade and I think that played a large part in my poor performance.
posted by MaritaCov at 7:35 PM on April 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


Sadly, like many things, it becomes a class barrier: The people who have the resources already know that you can study for the SAT/GRE/LSAT and I'm sure they know you can study for this. The people who're really struggling don't realize how much is out there and they don't have any real advocates.

But at the same time, I don't know how you could abolish the testing entirely. Even before you get to returning students, high schools today do NOT produce an overwhelming number of kids who are fully literate in math and English. A lot of these students might technically pass the for-credit course, but are the students who were fully prepared now getting the full educational value of a college-level course, or are they getting the simplified version, a remedial course now taught for credit to ensure everybody can keep up?
posted by Sequence at 7:39 PM on April 21, 2013 [7 favorites]


I used to work as a tutor at a college writing center primarily focused on serving students in remedial classes. Students would frequently come in unable to identify a complete sentence, maintain a single verb tense within a sentence, or even comprehend simple instructions for an assignment. The math tutoring center next door tutored pre-algebra. Pre-algebra. In college!

Many of the students worked extremely hard in unbelievably difficult circumstances (work, childcare, health issues). Some of them completed the remedial classes and moved on to credit-bearing classes. Many were simply unable to clear that (low, low) bar, even with a huge amount of free support from the tutoring centers and their instructors.

In 2012, The Complete College Foundation released a compelling report on remediation entitled Remediation: Higher Education's Bridge to Nowhere. (Fantastic read and lots of interesting info-graphics) Among the findings: fewer than 10% of community college students in remediation graduate within 3 years.

This isn't a problem that starts in college or even high school. It's a problem that starts in preschool, or at the age when students should be in pre-school. I so hope that PreSchool for All gets off the ground.
posted by charmcityblues at 7:40 PM on April 21, 2013 [19 favorites]


Is there any bigger than bite-size part of our educational system than isn't a long-form article worth full of clusterfuck? These are absymal, kill-it-with-fire kind of numbers:

The problem is that you can't draw a conclusion about the utility remedial classes from those numbers. Students who ignore placement advice are probably a) more confident and b) more likely to have been placed in the wrong class (or c) just arrogant, but let's give people the benefit of the doubt). In other words, they have an advantage to begin with over students who are less confident and have a weaker background. (Never mind that a weaker background probably correlates with things that make accessing higher education harder to begin with.)
posted by hoyland at 7:45 PM on April 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


A full 71 percent passed the for-credit course. That’s not much lower than the 77 percent pass rate for all students who took those for-credit courses. And it’s only slightly lower than the pass rate for students who first took and completed remedial courses.

Hopefully the for-credit course has a higher standard than pass/fail, though. Perhaps those who took the remedial courses passed with a much higher grade than those who passed without the extra instruction?
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:16 PM on April 21, 2013 [2 favorites]


For some people, a college education is not possible: sometimes they don't have the cognitive resources or the discipline, and sometimes they don't have the time, they don't have the autonomy from family and two jobs, they don't have a boyfriend who can resolve an argument without using his fists. Placement exams can't really tell which of these reasons apply, but students who fail placement exams will also usually fail to demonstrate development in critical thinking, close reading, analytic writing, and free-form problem solving. In other words, they're the ones who won't gain much from a college education, and they very frequently don't graduate as a result. Placement and remediation are just ways to bleed them of their tuition dollars (and load them up with student loans!) before they give up.

Sure, some people fail placement exams and then buck up and do well; but a lot of students fail placement exams and then are shuttled through substandard credit courses that give As for effort. I've taught a lot of students from the second group, and they very frequently tell me that they're getting As in all their other classes and they don't understand how they can be failing my introduction to critical thinking. (And no, they don't see the irony.)

But beware of plans to "fix" the system using superior administration. That's just an excuse to hire more Deans and deputy Deans. For instance:

Boylan’s ideal system, which would likewise aim for placing the highest possible number of students in regular courses, would use cognitive and affective tests, along with counseling and personal interviews—triangulating, essentially. A student who scored just under the cut might be placed in regular courses and succeed with some tutoring and other support.

The resources already devoted to placement testing and remediation are totally out of whack. These exams are not at all cheap, nor are the staff who evaluate them, and tuition dollars that pay for them can't pay for instruction.

The failure of remediation is a reason to have less of it, not a reason to double down on it.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:24 PM on April 21, 2013 [4 favorites]


This isn't a problem that starts in college or even high school. It's a problem that starts in preschool, or at the age when students should be in pre-school.

But it seems like the article is actually contravening this narrative, which I find troubling in part because it dooms working class people to, I don't know, kind of narrow lives? I mean, the article says--and please correct me if I'm misreading it--that there is no data to suggest the test predicts performance at all and that students tend to fail remedial courses not just because they can't "clear that (low, low) bar," but because it adds time and expense they don't always have.

Placement exams can't really tell which of these reasons apply, but students who fail placement exams will also usually fail to demonstrate development in critical thinking, close reading, analytic writing, and free-form problem solving. In other words, they're the ones who won't gain much from a college education, and they very frequently don't graduate as a result.

Look, I work in college access and have for a long time and I know that college is not automatically the best path for everyone, but this sounds so classist, especially without any data of any kind, anotherpanacea, and disrespectful of your students to boot. Correlation is not causation.
posted by liketitanic at 8:30 PM on April 21, 2013 [5 favorites]


I have the data. And it's not classist: plenty of poor students do well, including in my classes.
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:35 PM on April 21, 2013


I mean, the article says--and please correct me if I'm misreading it--that there is no data to suggest the test predicts performance at all and that students tend to fail remedial courses not just because they can't "clear that (low, low) bar," but because it adds time and expense they don't always have.

The argument is that the added time and expense reduces the rate at which students complete degrees, not the rate at which they pass remedial courses. Which is almost certainly true--anything that increases cost and time to degree will presumably reduce the completion rate--but I find the article really sloppy in general, so I'd hesitate to draw any conclusions from it.
posted by hoyland at 8:48 PM on April 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


Applying a strict cut-off when the scores look like this (pdf, see slide 25) does not make much sense to me (at least, not educationally).

Admittedly, this is a single class so I'd have to see more data, and I haven't read the meta-analysis the College Board commissioned yet (it's here - pdf) - but it seems to me that it would be way better to use a precision-recall or ROC curve to evaluate a test like this, instead of just reporting the correlation. Otherwise it's not hard to get something that's worse than useless: a weak predictor that looks like a pretty strong one.
posted by en forme de poire at 10:02 PM on April 21, 2013 [1 favorite]


The world needs ditch diggers too.
posted by charlie don't surf at 11:01 PM on April 21, 2013


The world needs ditch diggers too.

Usually said by people with no intention to fill this niche.
posted by MartinWisse at 11:05 PM on April 21, 2013 [19 favorites]


The world needs ditch diggers making a living wage and with medical insurance.
posted by Doroteo Arango II at 12:16 AM on April 22, 2013 [44 favorites]


charlie don't surf: The world needs ditch diggers too.

Except that now ditches are dug by licensed and certified heavy equipment operators with hundred-thousand dollar machines.
posted by Mitrovarr at 12:28 AM on April 22, 2013 [10 favorites]


FTA:About 30 percent of students referred to developmental education do not enroll in any remedial course, and only about 60 percent of referred students actually enroll in the remedial course to which they were referred. The results also show that more students exit their developmental sequences because they did not enroll in the first or a subsequent course than because they failed or withdrew from a course in which they were enrolled.

Whoop-de-do. People get discouraged to learn that they've wasted the past 12 years of their life. For that, they have my sympathy - The US education system sucks, even those of us who managed to steal an actual education from the spaces between classes will readily admit that.

From the other other side of the fence, though, I went to a community college for my first two years of college (hell of a lot cheaper to transfer in with an AA than to do those same courses at the 4-year), and have seen what happens when they don't force remedial classes on people.

I don't consider myself a particularly good writer, but comp-101 made me feel like a goddamned superhero by comparison. We had one writing assignment a week (two classes a week), and the professor had us work in randomized small groups each 2nd class to help each other "polish" our papers before turning them in. Sorry if it sounds elitist, but at the college level, you should damned well know how to conjugate verbs - A feat that a good 2/3rds of the class couldn't manage. You should know how to spell most of the words you use (and I don't just mean typos and confusing homonyms). You should, even if you can't execute it very well, have the basic form of a five paragraph expository essay seared into your brain though years of repetition.

So yes, the world needs ditch diggers. No, I never planned to work as one. And yes, when you flunk the community college placement exam, you should seriously consider such a career. The occasional "wasting my time" sob-story aside, you have some serious catching up to do if you can't pass a basic basic basic algebra and reading comprehension test.
posted by pla at 3:49 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


I worked for a time at an adult literacy organization. The sad truth about these remedial programs is that they often totally drain a student's financial resources without getting them anywhere. There are numerous community programs that will, for a much lower fee, help people prepare for community college. Unfortunately, for many people who enter these remediation classes, they are the only experience of college they will ever have. And they will leave a large sum of money behind for the privilege of not earning a single credit.
posted by driley at 4:37 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Here is a link to the full paper sans paywall. Fuck paywalls.
posted by sixohsix at 4:43 AM on April 22, 2013 [4 favorites]


Mitrovarr: "Except that now ditches are dug by licensed and certified heavy equipment operators with hundred-thousand dollar machines."

For plumbing trenches, the final grading (and work inside buildings that have no access for heavy equipment) is done by laborers. Only a small subset of laborers wind up being *good* at digging plumbing trenches.
posted by notsnot at 4:56 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


Hopefully the for-credit course has a higher standard than pass/fail, though.
posted by ceribus peribus at 8:16 PM on April 21
You do know what they call the person who graduates last in their class at medical school, right?
posted by Blue_Villain at 5:03 AM on April 22, 2013


Do you know what they call you if you graduate with a 2.0 from community college or open enrollment four year university?

Unemployed or employed in work that does not require a college degree.
posted by anotherpanacea at 5:34 AM on April 22, 2013


We had one writing assignment a week (two classes a week), and the professor had us work in randomized small groups each 2nd class to help each other "polish" our papers before turning them in. Sorry if it sounds elitist, but at the college level, you should damned well know how to conjugate verbs - A feat that a good 2/3rds of the class couldn't manage.

I can't say for sure, but it's unlikely that those groups were actually random. That's probably what you were told, but they probably consisted of at least one competent student per group. If you were one of the best students in the class, it is highly likely that you were often grouped with the most struggling students.

I'm in no way arguing that an appalling number students lack basic writing competency when they come into college, but your statistics may be biased slightly by observing a biased sample when you thought you had a random sample.
posted by BrashTech at 5:52 AM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Having been a community college instructor, let me tell you a little "secret": the vast majority of community college students will never be able to perform work requiring a college degree. They are often ill-served by the classes they are in, and would be far better off getting a certificate in welding or another trade than the various humanities, scientific, and IT-related fields they were attempting to pursue. I taught both remedial classes (basic computer usage) and specialty classes (dynamic web applications, server administration), and in both cases my students were often unsuited to the work. In the former case, about half my students failed; those who passed went on to pass their subsequent computer requirements. Those who failed went to another instructor who would pass them uselessly, and then failed the rest of the computer requirements. In the advanced classes, I had very few students—and I had semesters when I literally had no one who should pass the course. Of course, you can't fail everyone in a class; it's one of those lovely Unspoken Rules.

There isn't a ton you can do, as a remedial college instructor with five classes of thirty students each, for a 57 year old woman who never learned to read, or a 39 year old man who can't multiply 3 × 8. Furthermore, they often lack the self-awareness to realize these are deficiencies; I had one woman complain because I assigned articles to read about the internet, and "this ain't English class!"

I'm all for blaming the educational system for a lot of ills, but placement testing isn't one of them. Remedial classes and placement filtering are one of the few things that preserve what value community and open-access colleges still have. There is a lower bound of ability necessary to learn, and the people who don't meet that lower bound are often disruptive to other people, expect more help/easier classes than is justified, and will be incapable of getting a job in the field even if they complete the course of study. This is part of the reason being a community college instructor is so unrewarding, draining, and dismal—and why I've left education to work in industry.
posted by sonic meat machine at 6:10 AM on April 22, 2013 [11 favorites]


>The world needs ditch diggers too.

Usually said by people with no intention to fill this niche.


In this case, said by someone who used to fill this niche. That's why I studied so hard, so I would never have to wield a pickaxe and shovel again.
posted by charlie don't surf at 7:08 AM on April 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


you have some serious catching up to do if you can't pass a basic basic basic algebra and reading comprehension test

I don't know which test you took, but my test wasn't "basic basic basic algebra." It was computer based and you input your highest math education level and it adjusted the exam to it. I had taken AP Calculus in high school, so that's what I entered. It started out with integration skills. I could remember the concept and what I was doing but I could not remember the specific rules involved. It was the same with derivatives and trig. I sat in front of the computer trying to remember if it was sohcahtoa or sahcohtoa and I'm pretty sure I didn't choose correctly. Then my score was spit out and it put me in Intro to Algebra.

I had classmates struggling with the concept of fractions, so I know the class is necessary for some. However, I also had classmates who were similar to me so I certainly wasn't the only exception. When he placed me in Calc II I spent a weekend brushing up with a couple Schaums Outlines and ended up acing the class. I realize that I'm an exception but I know there are others like me. I don't think spitting answers into a computer is the best way to see where student skills lie. Ten minutes with an instructor would have placed me more accurately. It wasn't just the couple weeks I lost, I wasn't allowed to register for my physics classes until I completed at least Calc I. Since I was majoring in physics this set me behind an entire year.
posted by MaritaCov at 7:44 AM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


The issue, though, is not about the value of community college education in general, or even whether the majority of people are prepared for the most remedial classes, it's whether the tests do a good job separating the people who are likely to pass from those who are likely to fail. From what I can tell there is very little peer-reviewed literature on either side about these tests (it's mostly non-peer-reviewed working papers or technical reports, which includes the positive meta-analysis commissioned by the College Board that I linked above). With that being said, there's a working paper from Columbia's Teacher's College that argues that these tests make substantial "severe" errors in classification and are actually much worse at sorting people than other measures, like high school GPA.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:23 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


What is the value of 2x² + 3xy - 4y² when x = 2 and y = -4?
[...]
many middle-aged adults with college degrees would probably flub it
[...]


If you completed a college degree and you flub this question something went seriously wrong, and I don't really care how many years have passed.
posted by oxidizer at 8:29 AM on April 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


So yes, the world needs ditch diggers. No, I never planned to work as one. And yes, when you flunk the community college placement exam, you should seriously consider such a career.

You know, bunky, from personal experience and observing that of friends, there's a very good chance you're going to be doing some version of digging ditches even if you do very well in college right now.

About the sentiment behind "the world needs ditch diggers": BULLSHIT. The world doesn't need any such thing, but capitalist industry could make a lot of use out of it though, and that's why we have it, partly through design, partly because the people who have the power to change the system, pay a living wage and offer decent hope for a better life to their employees, see nothing wrong with it. That's the thinking that got us things like "at will" employment laws, the degradation of unions, the erosion of the social safety net, the horrendous minimum wage, and the increasing restriction of access to legal redress by workers.

The fact that so many people are forced into backbreaking menial labor is a curse, a holdover from the Industrial Revolution, a remnant of bloody slavery, a concrete example that we're not nearly the advanced civilization we pretend to be. That you can look over your time doing it with anything less than utter disgust and anger shows just how far you've internalized the system, blaming yourself for being put into such a role by the hard edge of basic survival and the grinding gears of industry, into which wedge are caught the entire forgotten working class of the United States.

And a lot of people are put into this role through no fault of their own. It's bloody fucking convenient to the powerful to pretend that everyone in the working class is there if their own fucking free will, or that it's somehow their fault. That attitude can go straight back to the fucking 19th century where it fucking belongs.
posted by JHarris at 8:33 AM on April 22, 2013 [6 favorites]


I don't know, I'd imagine the way people usually get that question wrong is by fucking up the order of operations, which is a convention of notation more than anything.
posted by en forme de poire at 8:37 AM on April 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


The fact that so many people are forced into backbreaking menial labor is a curse, a holdover from the Industrial Revolution, a remnant of bloody slavery, a concrete example that we're not nearly the advanced civilization we pretend to be.
Wow.

How do you expect the ditches to get dug, then? Socialists need ditches, too. The technology to eliminate manual labor does not exist. And not for lack of trying.

People should be paid reasonably for manual labor (and at the moment they almost never are). They should get some respect (they mostly get little). They should not be treated as disposable (at the moment, I suspect an injury is an unisured catastrophe for most). Maybe the manual labor should be spread over more people.

Those are hard things to fix, but at least a fix is physically possible... unlike eliminating ditch digging.

Maybe it would help if people viewed the work as something valuable and necessary, rather than intrinsically beneath the dignity of a human being.
posted by Hizonner at 9:01 AM on April 22, 2013 [7 favorites]


What is the value of 2x² + 3xy - 4y² when x = 2 and y = -4?

If you completed a college degree and you flub this question something went seriously wrong, and I don't really care how many years have passed.


Yeah, I have to say although I was well-accustomed excusing and blessing my dear Aunt Sally in college, I haven't used the order of operations since then. My Marxist analysis is a little rusty too, although I like to consider myself a useful member of society.
posted by supercoollady at 9:02 AM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


How do you expect the ditches to get dug, then? Socialists need ditches, too. The technology to eliminate manual labor does not exist.
robots will do it, drainage is a bourgeois luxury, etc. etc.
posted by This, of course, alludes to you at 9:17 AM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


If you can't take given values and plug them into an equation, you need to view this as a personal problem and fix it. It's basic numeracy.
posted by sonic meat machine at 9:46 AM on April 22, 2013 [5 favorites]


If there going to be ditches (which are required for plumbing, among other things) then there are going to be ditch diggers. I think it makes more sense to fight for higher wages for the folks doing the digging than it does to assume that everyone will be able to escape that life. That pretending has an ideological function that exceeds its aspirational and inspirational effects.

Progressives who rail against the false equality of opportunity that makes the poor think they will someday be millionaires ought to understand why college can't be an exit from the working class for everyone. Sure, anyone can be a millionaire or good at college, but everyone can't. It's a meritocratic institution, not an equalizer, and very little of the so-called college wage premium goes to those who attend community colleges and unselective four year universities.

I also think this "College for Everyone" mentality comes from folks who don't work with these populations. It's not disrespectful to appreciate the priorities of those who are actually choosing between homework and childcare, for instance. I've only been working at an unselective institution for three years, after seven years at selective universities, and the difference is palpable.

And it rankles to be called disrespectful for noticing the disparities. I watched one student's children so she could take exams without leaving them accessible to her abusive ex. She barely passed, and we both called that a victory: she hadn't had much time to study, and had to read her notes through a hell of a black eye. Tell me, did I disrespect her?

Or the student who I have cried with because she is dying from cancer: her husband just left her because the chemo makes her not want to have sex, and all she wants to do is graduate before she dies. Or the student who discovered she was pregnant and came to me because she didn't know what to do. Or my student whose brother was shot and broke down in class. Or my student who was followed into class and physically threatened. Or my student who thought she had to be a nursing major until she realized she was really good at philosophy. Or my student who asked me to help him figure out how to transfer when he realized that the only way he'd get a good education in computer science was if he left us. Or my students who are also incarcerated.

There's a difference between saying, "Right now, you have more important things to do than your logic homework, and that's okay." and saying, "Because you are poor, you don't deserve a college education." My students in prison are much better academically than the ones who are free, just because they have the time to focus on their studies. But of course, no Pell Grants means no credit. Bah.

One of the hats I wear is running the curriculum committee for one of three required courses at our school. That means I have a ton of (confidential) data and I can see some really troubling trends: low scores before remediation predict low scores after remediation. But you can look at the publicly available data for the Collegiate Learning Assessment and find the same kinds of information: poor close reading and analytic writing skills at the start of one's college education predict that there will be no detectable improvement in those skills after two years of full time college credit-bearing courses.

Ditch diggers don't need a college diploma. They need a union or a basic income guarantee or a social minimum or a citizen capital grant or workplace democracy at the ditch-digging company. But increasingly the only people who still have unions are the people who also have college degrees, and they like to pretend that increasing subsidies for middle-class students will help the ditch-diggers. It's class warfare all right, but not the way we like to pretend: it's not the 99% versus the 1%, it's the top 30% (the percentage with Bachelor's degrees) against the bottom 70% (those without), and the ones with the degrees are winning.
posted by anotherpanacea at 10:12 AM on April 22, 2013 [24 favorites]


The world needs ditch diggers too.

Perhaps, but otherwise-qualified students should not be diverted onto the digger track by an ineffective placement system.
posted by ogooglebar at 10:15 AM on April 22, 2013


If you can't take given values and plug them into an equation, you need to view this as a personal problem and fix it. It's basic numeracy.

I would love for math education to be better and more rigorous in the US, but I think this is a little hyperbolic - both because there are plenty of non-science careers that do not involve ever encountering an equation, and because at least some of the people who would have messed that question up did learn the necessary skill at some point and could easily re-learn it if it became necessary. This question was taken from a test for which people were, if anything, discouraged from preparing.
posted by en forme de poire at 11:07 AM on April 22, 2013 [1 favorite]


If you can't take given values and plug them into an equation, you need to view this as a personal problem and fix it. It's basic numeracy.

Perhaps. But if this gap in "basic numeracy" affects huge numbers of adults then it is also society's problem.
posted by It's Never Lurgi at 11:31 AM on April 22, 2013


Okay, it's a societal problem, but everyone who messes up the equation has got to promise to consider it a personal moral failing as well.
posted by skewed at 11:53 AM on April 22, 2013


I would love for math education to be better and more rigorous in the US, but I think this is a little hyperbolic - both because there are plenty of non-science careers that do not involve ever encountering an equation, and because at least some of the people who would have messed that question up did learn the necessary skill at some point and could easily re-learn it if it became necessary.

Except that if you can't stick numbers into a formula, almost any basic everyday application of mathematics is out of your reach. You can't buy materials for a home improvement project. You can't convert currency. You can't estimate how much gas you'll need on your roadtrip or how much it'll cost. You might be able to do your own taxes (because it's mostly written out in words), but probably not. You might be able to balance your checkbook, but, if you can, you don't understand what you're doing.

And, of course, there are loads of 'non-science' careers that are closed to you unless you have basic numeracy. Obvious examples would be nursing and carpentry. Most trades, probably. You couldn't run a business, or at least not one that doesn't go bust. Lacking those skills doesn't make you dumb or a bad person. Even if you have difficulty learning them, you're not dumb. They're not hard, but people regularly are too busy beating themselves up for not having learned to add fractions in elementary school to actually learn how to add fractions.
posted by hoyland at 12:33 PM on April 22, 2013


Of course people should fix that, I believe that's the point. People do need to know this. But they're being told that the test is unimportant and some of those who could easily fix it with some prep time are led to believe that it's not going to help them to do so, when it is.

Those who can't easily fix it with some prep time do need remedial help to obtain basic numeracy, but that may or may not be best obtained through these sorts of programs, I don't know.
posted by Sequence at 1:00 PM on April 22, 2013


Maybe it would help if people viewed the work as something valuable and necessary, rather than intrinsically beneath the dignity of a human being.

This for truth. Yes, the world needs ditch diggers. And somebody to buck hay, set irrigation syphons, clean houses, train dogs, sort recycling, mind babies, prune trees, take blood, fix cars and lawn mowers, and do a million and one things that don't need a college education. All of them have their own skills, and someone who has never done all these things may think they are above all this, but generally, this type of labor requires a skill set that takes years to perfect. Nothing is funnier than a bunch of college kids trying to put together a stack of hay. I told them I'd dock 'em if they stack fell--and by damn, it did. More CEOs ought to have a day or two digging ditches to appreciate that it does take a bit of skill to shovel dirt and do an efficient job of it.

All labor is valuable and keeps our society running. We need to honor that fact.
posted by BlueHorse at 1:04 PM on April 22, 2013 [9 favorites]


The problem isn't placement tests. The problem is, as noted above, that college for everyone is a lie.

City colleges weren't initially designed so that every Tom, Dick, and Harry could go to college if they felt like it. They were designed so that poor kids with strong academic merits could still afford to get an education.

Said education often acted as a class-jumping initiative, because the only people going to college were the smart and the middle class/wealthy. Jobs required college degrees, and you could network and do better than your fathers.

But now, everyone can go. Even if they can barely string a sentence together. Even if that poor, smart kid now has an infinitely shittier education, because the professors have to spend their focus on the people that are barely passing at best.

But the whole idea is actually cheapening college on the whole. If you as a professor have a class where 80% deserves to fail, and you can only fail 10%, eventually, by the law of averages, some completely incompetent people are going to graduate - and what does a college degree say then?
posted by corb at 2:54 PM on April 22, 2013


If you as a professor have a class where 80% deserves to fail, and you can only fail 10%, eventually, by the law of averages, some completely incompetent people are going to graduate - and what does a college degree say then?

I'm not sure where you got the idea that only failing 10% was common policy. (It's entirely possible it's in the article and I've forgotten since reading it.) You can usually count on 10% failing essentially by choice--not turning up to exams or not handing in work (or turning up to exams, but never coming to class or doing work, so then failing the exams), etc. (Some of them have presumably been overwhelmed by external factors, but my impression is that this accounts for only a minority.) It's probably astonishing to anyone who got reasonably good grades in college, but it's quite common for significantly more than 10% students in a course to fail.
posted by hoyland at 3:46 PM on April 22, 2013


Sorry, no, it's not cited. I have some friends who are adjuncts and have talked about the specific percentage that they are allowed to fail by the college - I don't think it is exactly 10%, persay, but it is in the lower range - maybe even up to 25%? I was more trying to make a general point that you aren't allowed to fail a good portion of your class even if they deserve it, folks definitely shouldn't get hung up by the numbers.
posted by corb at 4:08 PM on April 22, 2013


How do you expect the ditches to get dug, then? Socialists need ditches, too. The technology to eliminate manual labor does not exist. And not for lack of trying.

There is an old anti-Union joke I hate, but I'll tell it anyway.

An industrialist is visiting a construction site and watching a newly-invented steamshovel in its first job. The union foreman complains that its job could be done by a dozen men with shovels, each earning a decent wage. The industrialist retorts it could be done by a hundred men with spoons.
posted by charlie don't surf at 6:44 PM on April 22, 2013


JHarris : About the sentiment behind "the world needs ditch diggers": BULLSHIT. The world doesn't need any such thing, but capitalist industry could make a lot of use out of it though

As someone else pointed out, digging ditches actually no longer counts as unskilled labor, at least not on larger projects. Would you prefer "emptying the trash"? "Changing bedpans"? "Picking potatoes"? "Serving burgers"? The world needs some unskilled labor. Less and less of it, admittedly, but I honestly don't think we'll ever get rid of some level of it. Make no mistake, we could build a robot today to scrub toilets, or pick crop-X, or vacuum the floors; But we can pay a human - Even pay them a living wage (which I don't grudge anyone who works for it) - Far, far cheaper than we can produce a machine to do the same job.

That said...


The fact that so many people are forced into backbreaking menial labor is a curse, a holdover from the Industrial Revolution, a remnant of bloody slavery, a concrete example that we're not nearly the advanced civilization we pretend to be.

Not everyone can design rockets or repair aneurysms. Sorry. Basic fact of human existence. Some people will have trouble making change no matter how many years you try to drill simple math skills into their heads. The fact that we will always need some degree of unskilled labor, I'd hardly call a "curse".

Now, if you want to take a "hedonic revolution" angle and call the "need" to work itself a curse, I will agree with you. But until the singularity hits and (hopefully) the AIs benevolently decide to keep us as pets, some things need to get done, someone needs to do them, and the motivation of "putting food on the table" works.

It ain't a perfect system, but it gives people a hell of a lot more dignity than telling them "sorry, we consider you too stupid to matter; so here, just take this magic debit card to buy food - No, other side up... And the black strip down - And try not to irritate the real people".
posted by pla at 7:37 PM on April 22, 2013


One of the basic ideas behind "College for Everyone" is that the college degree is somehow useful in getting those better jobs. But unless you have a highly specialized degree (law, medicine, engineering, etc.), then your degree is not likely going to have any sort of direct impact on how well you do that job. (Of course I always have to mention one of my friends who graduated with a Linguistics degree and managed to find a job that actually used it.)

The moment I really started thinking about this was when I was idly chatting with the guy who was repairing my air conditioner one hot summer day. I asked him how he got into that job, and he responded by saying he apprenticed with someone at a young age.

Apprenticed! That's not a concept you think about in this modern time. But perhaps we need to think about apprenticeships and trade schools again. There is a growing lack of skilled, specialized "manual" labor in this modern world where everyone is getting generic degrees or no degree at all.
posted by Hamusutaa at 8:20 PM on April 22, 2013 [3 favorites]


Ditch diggers don't need a college diploma.

This seems to suggest that it is the students with abusive partners, terminal cancer, children, and violent death in the family who should be the ditch diggers. And in the short run, that's already sort of the case. But in the long run, it's a really bad moral argument that the students who come from disastrous backgrounds are the ones who are best suited for unskilled jobs. It should be a choice, not a sentence.
posted by Nomyte at 9:45 PM on April 22, 2013 [2 favorites]


Hamusutaa: But unless you have a highly specialized degree (law, medicine, engineering, etc.), then your degree is not likely going to have any sort of direct impact on how well you do that job.

I disagree with this. A college degree, if you pick a major that is at least somewhat rigorous and put in reasonable effort, will at the very least result in a significant upgrade to your literacy, your basic research skills, and your ability with a computer. Those are all critical things that will help in any white-collar job. It also tends to deepen people intellectually in general, but that's a little harder to quantify.
posted by Mitrovarr at 11:35 PM on April 22, 2013


This seems to suggest that it is the students with abusive partners, terminal cancer, children, and violent death in the family who should be the ditch diggers.

I don't see why. Those are almost all people who will have college diplomas or already have them. Most of them are women.

They won't dig ditches, but they will work in jobs that only require a college degree nominally, where the skills they've often failed to learn are irrelevant. The diploma will prove that they have grit and conscientiousness, and give them a leg up in a job market where such things are necessary, but they, like most people, will not remember what Modus Ponens is or how the the Rawlsian original position is supposed to help us think about justice.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:49 AM on April 23, 2013


Except that if you can't stick numbers into a formula, almost any basic everyday application of mathematics is out of your reach. You can't buy materials for a home improvement project. You can't convert currency. You can't estimate how much gas you'll need on your roadtrip or how much it'll cost. You might be able to do your own taxes (because it's mostly written out in words), but probably not. You might be able to balance your checkbook, but, if you can, you don't understand what you're doing.

Those applications don't require a complex formula like that one. Home improvement?
I have a 10x20 room that I want to floor. How much will it cost if a 1x1 tile costs $2? That's one variable. Most people can do that just fine: 10 x 20 x y = ? (Currency conversion is even easier. And the internet will do it for you, as will where you purchase currency.)

The problem presented isn't one that most people are going to need to use, but it's also one that would be fast and easy to brush up on if it came up. Not need to talk down to people like it's a failing that means they won't succeed in life. It's not.
posted by stoneweaver at 9:27 AM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


I graduated from a selective small liberal arts college a few years back, and now I'm at community college taking pre-requisite classes to switch fields. The absolute adherence to test results and other measures imposed by computer is consistent with my experiences at my CC, and vastly different from my previous college experience. In fact, I'd go so far to say that it's symptomatic of a larger problem; being successful at a CC requires leaping through all kinds of bureaucratic hurdles and poorly-articulated rules that many graduates of my first school, frankly, would have a hard time even conceptualizing.

Those placement tests, for one; so many students probably come in not knowing that there's any room to dispute them. I wanted to take a higher level math class than I initially placed into this semester, but I had to do it by meeting with the head of the math department, telling him about my previous experience and the programs I'm trying to get into, and having him sign off on a form. It took me a good two weeks to catch him in his office to do this, and by the time he signed off all the sections of the class I needed have filled.

The consistent advice I got, from the math department head and other advisors, was to wait until after the initial payment deadline for classes, then check to see if there were openings in the math class. Lots of students don't pay, they told me, you'll be fine. Lo and behold, there was an opening and I got in. What they didn't tell me, though, was that if you register for classes post payment deadline and don't pay immediately, you get dropped from every class you had registered for previously. Even if you'd already paid in full.

The woman in the registrar's office who explained this to me apologized profusely, told me it was a stupid policy, was even able to get me back into the math class. And the whole time I was thinking, at least I knew to call. At least I realized something was up when I couldn't see my classes listed on my online registration anymore. At least I had home computer access to check in.

There are so many different offices for every possible kind of help that you might need here: academic advising, general career advising, pre-health career advising, transfer advising, learning lab (academic support), counseling (I don't even know what this is-it's not psychological counseling. The people in the registrar's office sent me there to iron out residency issues, and the woman I spoke to said it wasn't the right office, though she was helpful anyway). I have a hard time telling what office does what function sometimes, even with my previous experience. I've spent afternoons waiting at least a half-hour for appointments, only to get bounced directly to another office, and maybe another from there. That's a lot of hours that a lot of my classmates don't have. The small colleges that you can access with more money and social capital consolidate a lot of those services, make it easier to figure out who does what. Lord knows I've complained endlessly about career services at my first alma mater, but at least they're immediately identifiable.

I've heard the argument before that the lengthy application process for food stamps, TANF, and other benefits is a deliberate thing, a filter to ensure that only the "right" kind of poor people who play by the arcane rules can access benefits. Going by what I've seen, I'd argue that community college acts as a similar kind of screener. Filtering out a lot of people through testing and endless remedial classes gets out one group. Some of the remainder, whether they pass remedial classes or not, will miss some bureaucratic loophole and get set back a couple semesters, maybe not even graduate at all. The only people left in the end will be the "right" kind of people who can figure out how to access all the resources. (Who, coincidentally, are probably the people who came in with more social capital to begin with.)

Even with my previous degree and a fair bit of persistence and know-how, getting basic things done at my community college is exhausting. I can't even imagine doing it with less of a clue going in. The fact that the schools that make these processes easier are mostly accessible to people coming in with immense economic and social privilege is a huge problem.
posted by ActionPopulated at 10:10 AM on April 23, 2013 [5 favorites]


"The only people left in the end will be the "right" kind of people who can figure out how to access all the resources. (Who, coincidentally, are probably the people who came in with more social capital to begin with.)"

QFMFT
posted by toodleydoodley at 3:23 PM on April 23, 2013


One major difference, ActionPopulated, is that many community colleges serve a much larger and more diverse group than small liberal arts colleges. For example, a famous and exclusive private university near my home has about 5,000 students. Another, in my home town, had 3,000. There are state universities that serve over 20,000 people, but those populations are fairly homogenous—young, 18–22 year old students just getting their start. The community college here has about 15,000 students, ranging from high school students to octogenarians, from credit-seekers to prisoners (who aren't counted in the above number), and each population is significant. They attend classes Monday through Saturday, from 6 AM to 12 AM, on wildly varying schedules: some classes are eight hours a day for two weeks, while others are traditional, 3 hour-per-week affairs. Some are online, some are on campus, some are telepresence. Some are for credit, some are adult basic education, some are for seniors who need something to do on the weekend.

I believe strongly in the mission of the Community College, providing education across a vast array of subjects to the people who need it, but with its broad mission and the absence of other supporting social structures (senior centers, functional employment offices, separate adult basic education facilities), it becomes a bureaucratic nightmare. There are so many different offices because there are so many different functions. If I had to guess, I'd say that the "counseling" office you were sent to was a career placement and job-readiness counseling office; we called it the "Career Counseling Center." We also had an "Academic Success Center," an "Adult Basic Education Center," a "Learning Resources Center" (a.k.a. Library), a "Vocational Placement and Aptitude Center," an "Academic Curriculum Center" (for college transfer hopefuls), an "Early College Educational Center" (for high school students), and "Community and Corporate Training Center."

None of the different offices are superfluous, but navigating them can be difficult—particularly, as you note, for those without the critical thinking and information gathering skills that some of the curricula are designed to teach. One of the major problems for the college, and a source of some of the misery I alluded to in my previous post, is actually that people are too willing to disregard tests. They test at a level such that a counselor tells them: "You need to go to Adult Basic Education and learn to read," and they refuse, out of pride. So they fail my course four times in a row and quit trying. Then there are the people who are only there to game the system, which is a not-inconsiderable number; probably a third of the students are there purely for a Pell check and vanish after they've gotten theirs. (That's why the folks at your school were so sure you'd get a spot after the payment deadline... that's usually when Pell checks are disbursed.)

It's a weird, flawed system, which probably needs to have its mission distributed among several different types of institution... but, in our Magical New World of Consolidation and Efficiency, that would represent duplication of effort.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:51 PM on April 23, 2013 [1 favorite]


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