During our lifetimes, we will likely see high-stakes standardized testing go extinct — definitely in the American higher education ecosystem, and perhaps in K-12, too. The problems with such tests are well documented: race, class, and first-language bias in test questions; inflexibility regarding students’ learning styles; and significant advantages given to students who can afford to pay for test preparation — just to name a few. These problems threaten validity of tests, meaning they may not be measuring what they purport to be measuring as accurately as many assume. Poor validity in college entrance placement can have a disastrous effect on the persistence, debt, and long-term success of those who dream of a college degree.
An increasing number of community colleges and four-year universities (even some elite institutions) have begun moving away from standardized testing for entrance or placement purposes in recent years, which is admirable. Complete College America is also doing wonderful research and advocacy in this area. But there is much more that we need to do to ensure more equitable access and long-term student success. Better assessment practice can also avoid over-remediation, i.e., tossing too many students into what some have called higher education’s black hole.
The testing flaws laid out above are compounded by the growing population of adult learners across the American higher education landscape. Complete College America estimates that over 40 percent of all U.S. college and university students are 25 years or older. As more adult learners enter college, we need to ask these questions: How many of our incoming adult students are ready to take their college’s entrance placement tests? Are we turning away students who could be successful due to imprecise assessments?
Rasmussen College has long been an institution with a majority adult enrollment. Today, more than 70 percent of our students are 25 years or older. Many of our incoming students have not dissected a sentence for parts of speech, or worked with fractions or variables in years, sometimes decades. Many cannot afford to spend their limited dollars on test preparation. In 2012, Rasmussen College had a remediation rate, defined as new students needing at least one sub-college-level math or English course, of 32 percent. Today, our remediation rate is 4 percent and student success is strong.
This is the story of how we got there.
Brushing Up: Free and Mandatory Test Preparation
In 2012, Rasmussen decided to retire the entrance placement assessment we had been using for years. After a failed pilot with another external assessment, a cross-functional team comprised of faculty and representatives from developmental education and assessment departments created a new assessment that we call “Rasmussen Ready.”
Rasmussen Ready measures English reading comprehension, writing, and mathematics, just as our old assessment did; however, the platform requires students to engage with online brush-up content prior to accessing the test. This brush-up content serves to:
- Wipe away cobwebs that have accumulated since the learner last worked with variables, sentence structure and other essential math and English topics — many of which we cover in middle and high school.
- Build confidence in the learner before the high-stakes test begins.
- Bridge the gap between students who can afford formal test preparation and those who cannot.
- Increase validity of the assessment by testing what students can or cannot demonstrate, as opposed to their readiness to take a test cold.
No More Remediation Double Jeopardy
Also in 2012, Rasmussen College examined its remediation policy with a critical eye. Was our policy conducive to long-term student success? Or was it yet another barrier toward successful completion of a high-quality and affordable degree? Through this analysis, we found that we required students to take the entrance placement assessment even when they had demonstrated math and/or English proficiency through other assessments. Our solution was to diversify assessment. Instead of requiring everyone to take our entrance placement test, we would allow into college-level courses:
- Any learners who have achieved at least a “C” grade in college-level math or English at another accredited institution before enrolling at Rasmussen
- Any learners who have passed programmatic entrance tests, such as TEAS, which also include math and English proficiency
Accelerate Remediation Courses and Co-Requisite Scheduling
For any learners who did require remediation, we accelerated the courses, scheduled them alongside introductory college-level courses in their first term, and winnowed our remedial course offerings down to one course each for mathematics and integrated reading/writing. Condensing the courses from 11 weeks to six weeks while not reducing activity hours or rigor did cause consternation among some faculty and staff who rightfully asked, “Why are we accelerating the pace of learning for our most at-risk students in their first term?” The answer, based on the literature, is that acceleration makes particularly good sense for remediation courses because they feature content the learners have seen before, i.e., in middle and high school. It is typically familiar content and therefore most remediation learners are not tabula rasa, but rather in need of relearning or brush-up.
The Human Element
Given the accelerated pace of the remediation courses, and the fact that the majority of our remediation seats are online, we made a deliberate effort to increase the “human element” in our courses. This includes:
- Multiple synchronous live classrooms per week can help faculty and students work through problems, collaborate, prepare for projects and consider application of learning.
- Implementation of Ginsberg and Wlodkowski’s (1995) motivational framework for culturally responsive teaching into our remediation courses. The framework, when appropriately embedded into online course design, can foster a sense of inclusion, a favorable disposition toward learning; enhance meaning of content; and create an understanding that students are learning something valuable.
As a result of these reforms, Rasmussen College’s remediation rate fell from 32 percent in 2012 to 4 percent in 2016 and has held steady in single digits ever since. Most importantly, the long-term success of our student population is increasing. In addition to term-by-term retention and graduation rates, Rasmussen College uses a “One Year Success” (OYS) metric to measure whether students are still enrolled in the college 366 days after initial matriculation. Our OYS data show students who test into remediation and pass their first course are just as likely to remain enrolled in the college as students who need no remediation at all. And retention/OYS rates at the College have achieved historic highs.
At Rasmussen College, a comprehensive evaluation of our remediation experience led to a mixture of solutions that have resulted in long-term success for our students, most of whom are adult learners: free and mandatory test preparation, smarter policy, acceleration, and greater faculty presence.
Institutional missions vary. The solutions that worked for Rasmussen College may work for other institutions and they may not. But remediation’s status quo will not be viable for long. As the population of adult learners continues to grow across nearly all higher learning institutions in the United States, it is incumbent upon college and university leadership to review and rethink their entrance placement policies and remediation experiences. The commitment at Rasmussen College is to solving the problem of over-remediation beyond our own walls. We are in this as partners with other colleges and universities who wish to turn the black hole of remediation into a valid pathway to ensure we prepare all learners, especially adults, to graduate and flourish in the world and workplace.
This blog post is written by Trenda Boyum-Breen and Brooks Doherty, President and Assistant VP of Academic Innovation at Rasmussen College.