The Hechinger Report is a national nonprofit newsroom that reports on one topic: education. Sign up for our weekly newsletters to get stories like this delivered directly to your inbox.

Get important education news and analysis delivered straight to your inbox

Choose from our newsletters

basic skills classes
Karina Carrillo, Marina Casillas and Sonia Ortega (l to r) relax during a recent misty morning on the Los Angeles Valley College campus. Like many of their peers, they must all take multiple basic-skills courses

Los Angeles — The three petite, soft-spoken Latinas are all friends. They graduated from Grant High School here, are on one another’s speed dial and share a preference for electric blue. And all three are stuck in basic-skills courses at Los Angeles Valley College after bombing their college placement exams, in part because they had so little guidance about what would be tested.

“I did bad – I was tired,” says Karina Carrillo, 18. “I was surprised that I had to take so many English classes over – they won’t even count as college credit for two years.”

The experience of Carrillo and her classmates Sonia Ortega and Mariana Casillas at their two-year college reflects a graduation crisis at community colleges – one that President Barack Obama addressed at a White House summit earlier this week. “More than half of those who enter community colleges fail to either earn a two-year degree or transfer to earn a four-year degree,” Obama said.

The stakes of getting stuck in remedial classes and never earning a degree are especially high in California, which is home to the nation’s largest community college system, with 112 campuses and 2.9 million students. Nationally, between 60 and 80 percent are placed in the basic-skills classes Carrillo and her classmates can’t escape, leading many to quit in frustration.

Remedial education is where far too many community college students begin and end their careers, and it remains one of the most intractable obstacles to graduation, said Tom Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University. Only 31 percent of students placed into remedial math ever get to college-level work, and just half of students referred to remediation of any kind complete the entire sequence, Bailey has found.

The morass of remedial education – Bailey’s research has shown it’s often ineffective, and students who need it drop out at alarming rates – is one reason President Obama called for the first-ever White House summit on community colleges, after setting a goal last year of increasing the number of students who earn degrees and certificates from the two-year institutions by five million in the next decade.

The placement tests that determine whether students are ready for college-level work are the first big hurdle to graduation, say the authors of a new study on California community colleges. High school counselors aren’t advising students about how to prepare for the tests, according to “One-Shot Deal? Students’ Perceptions of Assessment and Course Placement in California’s Community Colleges,” by the education research agency WestEd. And too often, students who likely would have passed if they’d simply reviewed certain math or reading concepts find themselves on the remedial track.

“It wasn’t a test of what you could do, but about what you could remember from a long time ago,” one student who took algebra and geometry in high school told researchers. He was tested on fractions he hadn’t studied for years and placed into basic math.

The study based its findings in part on interviews with 257 students at five California community colleges. It sheds new light on the poorly understood and often ineffective course-placement structure at the state’s community colleges, which educate three-quarters of its college students. Too often students get little counseling and may have less than a day to formulate their education plans, said Michael Kirst, a professor emeritus at Stanford University.

“At community colleges, people just show up and are processed immediately,” Kirst said. “This raises questions about whether this one-shot assessment is an appropriate measure of what you know and what you don’t know.”

Exam questions often bear no relation to what students learned in high school, the study found. The exams are essentially one-size-fits-all, meaning that students who have small gaps in their knowledge or skills are placed into classes where they actually know most of the material. Some 83 percent of incoming students scored so low that they were placed in remedial math courses that don’t count for college credit, while 72 percent of students tested into remedial English.

“What we found are indications of a broken system. It’s shockingly bad, the lack of completion, and the placement into basic-skills classes, and the amount of time students swirl in these classes,” said Andrea Venezia, a senior research associate at WestEd and a co-author of the study.

Some students also reported having to wait weeks before receiving their scores on placement exams. Many encountered unclear policies about if or when they’d be allowed to retake the exams to pass out of remedial courses, with one school making its students wait three years for a second shot. And most students have nowhere to go to for advice: community college counselors are swamped with caseloads of hundreds, or even thousands, of students.

WestEd’s report comes at a time of heightened attention to completion rates at community colleges nationally. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced this week that it’ll invest $35 million over the next five years to boost graduation rates. And last month, U.S. Education Secretary Martha Kanter called remedial education “a barrier to success,” noting that too many students are frustrated and falling out of the system. Business leaders, foundation officials and educators who gathered at the White House this week spent hours discussing ways to dramatically boost graduation rates.

Robert Gabriner, a professor at San Francisco State University who has worked in the community college system for 40 year, agrees with the study’s recommendations that community colleges must find new ways to test incoming students and pinpoint their weaknesses.

“Essentially, where students are placed in the course sequence is their destiny – if you’re placed three levels below in math, eight percent make it up to college-level math,”  Gabriner said.

Some California community colleges say they are starting to provide more outreach to high school students through the Internet and summer programs. Cerritos College in Norwalk is creating a weeklong summer program in which students receive advice about courses, as well as tips about how to be successful students.

“If we’re serious, if the president is serious, about raising the completion rate, you can’t do that unless you figure out how to get students in the community colleges ready to take on college-level work,” said Mary Perry, a deputy director at EdSource, an independent, nonprofit research group.

Sonia Ortega, an 18-year-old freshman at Los Angeles Valley College, said she wishes she’d known what to expect on the placement exam. “It was hard,” Ortega said. “We had just come from high school, and I knew I saw it already but I couldn’t get it right.”

Jon Marcus and Liz Willen contributed to this article.

The Hechinger Report provides in-depth, fact-based, unbiased reporting on education that is free to all readers. But that doesn't mean it's free to produce. Our work keeps educators and the public informed about pressing issues at schools and on campuses throughout the country. We tell the whole story, even when the details are inconvenient. Help us keep doing that.

Join us today.

Letters to the Editor

4 Letters

At The Hechinger Report, we publish thoughtful letters from readers that contribute to the ongoing discussion about the education topics we cover. Please read our guidelines for more information. We will not consider letters that do not contain a full name and valid email address. You may submit news tips or ideas here without a full name, but not letters.

By submitting your name, you grant us permission to publish it with your letter. We will never publish your email address. You must fill out all fields to submit a letter.

  1. The existing tests seem to produce results that are not refined enough, so, as the article suggests, developing a more refined testing system (so the students can be placed into block of skills or instruction instead of courses) could save the system and the students a lot of money, and time. Providing some kind of pretest, producing instructions to the student about what to review (and how to review it) before the formal test would also be a good idea. If the concepts suggested by the article can be successfully implemented, it would be highly cost-effective over the long term for the school and the taxpayer, and at the same time help produce better graduation rates.

    Bernard Schuster

  2. It is not a secret that high schools are being pressured to graduate students who are not ready to handle college level work.

  3. I teach remedial classes. Fully 50% of my students have no real reason to be in college. They do not value learning; they have no goals requiring an education; they do not respect their own opportunity; they do not know what they are even in school for. Many dropped out of high school and have few — if any — helpful study skills. They are in college because they have no where else to go. They see remedial classes as something to “get through” so they don’t. They enter a remedial class believing they “learned it in high school” but they didn’t because they ditched school, had different priorities, whatever caused them to get to this point.

    I have students who say, “I can’t do homework, teacher. I have a job.”

    I’m sorry but putting the onus on the community college is passing the buck. $.75 belongs in the pockets of the individual students because they are the ONLY PEOPLE who can get themselves out of the basic skills classes (by mastering the skills) and on with their lives. The other $.25 cents? I’m not sure — spread it out among whatever early-life variables affect each student. But “blame” doesn’t help. Community college basic skills classes CAN help every student who lets them.

    I like my students and I like teaching these classes, but no one is “stuck” or “mired” in them without simply refusing to move through laziness, lack of focus, or dependence on their FAFSA grant for an income. Any student who wants to move out of these classes WILL move out of these classes.

Submit a letter

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *