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A Mystery to Solve


How is helping students’ transition to college like waiting in a buffet line?

Changing the Finish Line

For years, adult basic skills programs focused on helping students complete a GED or Adult High School Diploma (AHSD). With recent economic changes, earning a GED or AHSD is not enough. For a GED/AHSD to result in meaningful earnings gains, students need at least one year of postsecondary education and a workplace recognized credential (Washington State, 2005). To ensure students have the skills to be competitive, programs’ goals are expanding to include the successful transition of students to postsecondary education.

One of our biggest challenges is helping our students see their need for postsecondary education. Showing students data on the lower unemployment rates for those with education beyond high school is a good place to begin:

Changing the culture of our adult basic skills programs will also help. Beginning at program entry and continuing throughout their stay, all staff should make it clear to students that the new economy demands a postsecondary credential to land a living wage job. Many of our students have limited exposure to the world of work. A study found the average student could name only 12 jobs, so we need to educate them about the many different types of careers available (Cohn, Boyt Schell, & Crepeau, 2004).

Also, our students should know about the many careers available that start in community colleges’ curriculum (college credit) and continuing education programs. While this course focuses on preparing students for curriculum programs, many of our students are unable or unwilling to spend several years in college. They want to quickly enter the job market, and based on their interests, we can transition them to continuing education programs like Certified Nursing Assistant, Pharmacy Technician, Welding, and Food Service. We can also help them earn employer-valued credentials like the Career Readiness Certificate.

Reflection 1: How is helping our students' transition to college like waiting in a buffet line?

Reflection 2: Why is it so important for our students to have a postsecondary credential?

Reflection 3: What are you currently doing in your program to encourage students to transition to postsecondary? If your program is not doing anything with transitions, how can you begin to change your program's culture?

Encouraging College Attendance

Thoughts about college make students nervous. They may know little about it and may consider college something only "smart people" do. Students wonder how to navigate all the challenges involved with attending college like filling out all the paperwork, taking the placement test, and applying for financial aid. We can show our students that they are the "smart people" who will be successful college students. Bringing students’ fears out in the open helps them deal with their emotions. One powerful tool we can use to help students cope with their fears is to use stories such as Kathy Newman's and Chairsty Stewart's in the following video.

College Curriculum Programs

Community colleges offer students several types of curriculum programs with different credentials. Colleges offer certificate programs which can be completed in one semester, one year diploma programs, and two year associate degree programs. These programs are offered in many areas including technical and vocational programs like medical assisting, welding, and cosmetology. Get to know the different programs offered at your college. Invite program directors to give presentations so our students can see their possible futures. Courageous Conversations, a program at Pitt Community College, introduces students to college programs and is described in more detail at:

Reflection 4: Describe two ideas for encouraging students to attend college.

Reflection 5: How much do you know about the college curriculum and continuing education programs offered on your campus? What will you do to learn more?

Reflection 6: What specific things could you do to help your students learn more about the college curriculum and continuing education programs offered on your campus?

Understanding the CPT

As part of the application process for many college curriculum programs, students are required to take the college placement test (CPT). Many students find out about the CPT during college orientation and end up taking it the same day. So, students take the CPT without understanding its purpose (Safran & Visher, 2010). They are also not prepared for the CPT's format and content (Venezia, Bracco, & Nodine, 2010).

The CPT is incredibly important to our students' futures. It determines where students begin their studies, either with developmental or college classes. Developmental classes, designated by course numbers less than 100 such as Math 070, prepare students for college level courses and must be completed before taking college classes. Students scoring low on the CPT must take one semester to two years of developmental classes before beginning college level classes.

The chart below shows how a student placing in the lowest level of developmental classes would spend most of their first three semesters taking non-credit developmental classes. The classes in blue print are non-credit developmental courses. Of the 44 credits earned in the first year and one half of college, only 8 would count as college credit toward a credential.

First Semester Second Semester Third Semester
Math 60 Math 70 Math 80
Reading 70 Reading 80 Reading 90
English 70 English 80 English 90
ACA 111 MUS 110 CIS 110
Semester Credits: 14 Semester Credits: 15 Semester Credits: 15
College Credits: 2 College Credits: 3 College Credits: 3

Unfortunately, students placing in developmental classes face a tremendous challenge completing a post-secondary credential. Students taking developmental courses who do not start a college credit program of study within a year of beginning college are far less likely to earn a credential (Jenkins, 2011). Less than 25 percent of students enrolling in any developmental education course end up completing a credential within eight years of starting college (Bailey and Cho, 2010). Students also risk running out of financial aid prior to completing a college credential when they must take several semesters of developmental classes (Price and Roberts, 2008). Given this information, what can we do to ensure our students do as well as possible on the college placement test?

Understanding the CPT’s Consequences

We want to ensure students are aware of the consequences of performing poorly on the CPT (several semesters of non-credit developmental classes and a greater chance of not completing a credential) but do not want to scare them. When asked how to set the right motivational tone, Chantel Reynolds, Senior Assessment Manager at College Board (creators of the ACCUPLACER test), said:

I've seen campuses give students a flyer showing level of placement related to time spent getting a degree or certificate and money spent on developmental courses. Laying it out in black and white works well with some students and provides incentive to do their best. Each instructor, however, knows their students and can recognize when one student might respond to that strategy and when another student might completely freak out and feel additional pressure about test performance. It's a fine line, and I struggled with it as testing director. I never wanted to frighten a student, but I didn’t want them to think this was ‘no big thing’ either.

Reflection 7: Why is performing well on the college placement test so important for our students?

Reflection 8: What will you do to educate your students about the college placement test's importance?

CPT Testing Recommendations

Many community colleges give either the Accuplacer or Compass CPT. To fully understand what our students encounter on the CPT, we recommend that basic skills instructors, coordinators, and administrators take all sections of the CPT given on your campus. We need to understand how a computer adaptive test works as well as become familiar with the CPT’s content. It is also important to establish a relationship with your campus's test examiner so they know the challenges our adult basic skills students face.

When students take the CPT and place into lower level developmental classes, encourage them to stay in adult basic skills programs, improve their skills, and then re-take the CPT. Students can take adult basic skills classes for free while developmental classes charge tuition and fees. Our goal should be to help our students place into at least the highest level of developmental classes so they start taking college classes as soon as possible.

Some other ways we can help students are:

  • Encourage students to take the CPT several months before beginning college classes
  • Have students take CPT diagnostic tests to find out areas of weakness
  • Students should practice taking computer adaptive tests
  • Arithmetic review (especially fractions) makes a significant difference in CPT math scores
  • Algebra skills are crucial to placing into college level math courses
  • Offer bridge to college class and placement test seminars

Preparing Students for Compass or Accuplacer

How can we ensure students do as well as possible on the CPT? First, we need to make them aware of what the CPT is and how important it is. Students also need to know the Compass and Accuplacers content and format. Finally, we need to help create the right motivational tone. The remaining sections of Be Prepared! are designed to be used with your students to give them the necessary information as they get ready for college.

Both Compass and Accuplacer are taken on the computer, so our students need to be familiar with computer based testing. Compass and Accuplacer are adaptive tests, meaning that the difficulty level of each question changes based on whether the previous question is answered correctly or incorrectly. Students cannot go back and change their answers, so it is important to take time to eliminate answers they know are wrong and then take their best guess if they are unsure of an answer. The tests are untimed, so encourage students to focus on each question and not worry about how long it takes them to complete testing. Please click this link to see more of how a computer adaptive test works.

Compass Advice

Since Compass is untimed and adaptive, some students may end up testing for up to 3 hours! For most students, concentrating that long is a huge issue. We recommend students take the reading, math, and writing sections on different days to score as high as possible.

Compass and Accuplacer Study Suggestions

Specific recommendations for studying for Compass and Accuplacer that are being used in college bridge programs are available in the course resource section. Follow this link to view these recommendations.

The rest of the course is designed for you to use with your students so they can be prepared for their postsecondary experiences. There are many ways to use this course. With the research on student engagement, it is more effective to move through the course with your students using the videos as background for class discussions. If this is not possible, students can work through the course independently using the student reflection guide found in the Starting College section. Use the resource section to get more information in specific areas of interest. However you use this course, it is never too early to begin having your students think about their futures!

Reflection 9: Describe three things you can do to help your students prepare for the college placement test.

Reflection 10: What is your plan for using the information from the following student-centered section of the course with your students?

Instructor After Course Survey

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