Standardized entrance exams: A good predictor of student success in college?

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The high-stakes entrance exam that the state’s community colleges use will no longer be the lone factor in determining if students can enroll in credit-bearing courses.

With 70 percent of students failing a placement test each year -– and a change in state law — the Board of Regents voted Thursday to begin requiring the dozen colleges and the four Connecticut State Universities to use multiple indicators.

These indicators may include a high-school transcript, a senior portfolio or anything else that could help better predict whether a student will succeed in a college-level course.

Under the current assessment system, some students unfairly end up having to take — and pay for — non-credit remedial courses, said the director of policy and research for the Connecticut State Colleges & Universities.

“We make mistakes,” Braden Hosch told the board Thursday.

The validity of these standardized tests — named Accuplacer — have also been questioned by Columbia University’s Teachers College.

This move to better assess a student’s ability to succeed in college courses follows acknowledgement by many officials that the current system is not working.

“It has been a miserable failure,” said Sen. Beth Bye, D-West Hartford, co-chairwoman of the Higher Education Committee. Bye spearheaded the change in state law that transforms how remedial education is taught.

Remedial courses at the colleges have been referred to as the Bermuda Triangle: Just 13.6 percent of the full-time students who take them actually earn an associate’s degree in four years —  twice the time it should take, reports the Board of Regents.

“The test only provides us with a piece of what we need to predict ability,” said Wilredo Nieves, the president of Capital Community College in Hartford.

“Students don’t always do well on standardized tests,” said Cathryn Addy, president of Tunxis Community College in Farmington. She said it’s rare for students to appeal their placement, and she’s witnessed firsthand students being inappropriately placed.

This policy change is one of many that will be necessary in the coming 15 months. The law passed in 2012 also limits remedial enrollment to one semester beginning in the fall of 2014.

This limit has drawn the concern of many.

The president of Norwalk Community College told legislators last year that allowing students to opt out of remediation will produce “a kind of Darwinian result where they fail introductory classes in large numbers.”

Nieves, of Capital, said that concern remains.

“They may not be turned away, but they will be in a course they’re not ready for,” he said. “I think every student can succeed [in college courses] if they have the appropriate support.”

Officials are working now to plan for that necessary support and figure out where the funding for it will come from.

The plan, which has not yet been finalized, would allow fewer students to take one semester of intensive remedial non-credit courses before being allowed to take college-level courses. The system estimates that the shift means thousands more students will be enrolled in credit-bearing courses.

“If students want to try and pass [a college course], let them try… This could be the difference between them attaining a degree,” said Bye, pointing out that making it take longer for a student to get a degree is an unnecessary obstacle.

These credit courses, officials say, will need to have embedded supports build into them –- such as small class sizes, tutors and computer-assisted technology –- to help struggling students.

A draft budget for that plan estimates that it could cost the system up to $8.9 million a year to decrease class sizes, $2.9 million to hire tutors and counselors, and $1.6 for intensive technology.

This fiscal year, the state provided $2 million to start pilot programs at the schools.

Will it cost more?

“That is something I don’t know yet,” said Gary Holloway, the chairman of the Regents’ Finance Committee. “It’s one of the 10 things on the list that community colleges are concerned with.”

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