Alt Ac Career Paths – A Case Study

Opinion on the alt ac career path are a mixed bag. Some see it as a solution to the current lack of academic jobs, some see it as an opportunity to explore new career territories and expand what an academic can do, while some even believe it is a lie we have been sold to accommodate the hard truth behind the lack of jobs in the market and so we use alt ac as a band aid, or quick fix to a larger problem. Personally I find myself among those who see it as an opportunity to find meaningful work elsewhere and become involved in areas that could benefit from my knowledge and dedication.

With that said, some of you may know my involvement with various arteries of academia outside the classroom. For those of you who don’t, over the past year I have been working on the California Community College Common Assessment with the Chancellor’s Office in Sacramento, functioning as a matriculation and English expert. At first the meetings occurred once or twice a month and I would fly into town in the morning and depart at the end of the day, but with several new changes in legislature that enacted demands for more testing in community colleges, along with tying money to these ventures, the meetings have ramped up, and I just spent this last week in San Diego developing test questions, looking at the interaction between content and testing platform, and essentially ironing out kinks as much as possible. It was a very productive week and I am excited that the work we are doing is ultimately going to help millions of students.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the educational climate in California, we have 113 community colleges serving 3 million students throughout the state, and each one has been operating with autonomy where almost all major decisions are driven locally at the college and district level. Continuing to allow this much disparity in practices across the board is decisively detrimental to students.

Before anyone panics, this Common Assessment Initiative is in no way going to touch upon curriculum, or even direct placement. That will remain completely within the realm of each college and department.

The population of students we are servicing have opted for a community college as opposed to a traditional university for various reasons. Geographically this population is very fluid, and further, due to course offerings students often attend more than one community college at a time, cherry picking their courses to fit their schedules, which often include full time employment, family, and other obligations.

For example, within 25 miles of my house I can name 10 community colleges off the top of my head. If I were a student, desperate to finish school, and couldn’t get all my classes at any one venue, I would hop around and collect my coursework wherever I could get it. I understand this choice, even if it doesn’t always make sense to everyone, aside from all the other implications upon the student in regards to the ultimate education he may receive. But assuming all things are equal, and this student will be just as successful as another student pursuing a linear education at a single institution, there are other factors impeding success. One of these obstacles is the assessment test that places him into math and English classes.

To illustrate this I will use a very common example – one that we see daily. A student will take her placement test for math and English at College A, but then is unable to get math classes. So she takes her English class at College A, but goes to College B for math. The problem is that College B doesn’t accept her scores from the previous school, and so she has to retest. Now she must incur the anxieties of another test, the school will incur the costs of retesting her (and testing instruments are not cheap!), and her scores will have little to no portability. Further, it has been found that when a student is retested, while it may seem counterintuitive, she will most likely perform more poorly the second time around – she becomes frustrated with the process, and subconsciously she believes she doesn’t have to try as hard, because, after all, she just tested a few weeks, if not days ago, and she did fine the first time around. The scores come in and she places into a lower course at College B than at College A. However, College B has classes for her, so she settles for the lower course and signs up for a math class.

She is one of many students who is misplaced into a cycle of needless remediation. She will now be required to take one or two extra courses in order to reach the equivalent of college level math that we consider the minimum for transfer to a four-year university or even to obtain a certificate of completion at the community college level. Piling on coursework does not lead to success. An unnecessary work load causes students to feel as though the end is nowhere in sight, and this feeling of futility more often than not leads to higher drop out rates.

Obviously there are a series of issues to consider in this scenario, and conversations have been occurring for nearly a decade, if not longer, as to how best to remedy these problems. The Common Assessment is not a solve-all solution, however, it gets to one of the difficulties that crops up at the very beginning of the educational process, and by creating this common exam which will be adopted by all the community colleges in the state the placement methodology becomes streamlined. Aside from expired text scores, or students who wish to challenge their placement, a student will never be asked to retest within a short period of time. Scores will no longer be deemed inconclusive or invalid simply because the measurement tools vary from campus to campus. Even when one college is able to “translate” the score sheets from another school, courses will no longer be lost in translation, resulting in extraneous classes heaped upon an incoming student.

The benefits are clear, but the implementation is quite the feat. As mentioned, we have been meeting monthly to hammer out the different competencies we want to test that are reliant upon what students are expected to know at different points in their education, and we have been aligning these competencies with high school curriculum (which is not to say we expect every one of our entry level students to have successfully completed high school). Then we determined which ones of these competencies we absolutely must test with the understanding that not all items can be feasibly accounted for; we are not creating a seven hour long test to rival the Bataan Death March.

In short, these competencies have been reexamined ad infinitum and combed through to the minutest detail. However, if we actually want this project to move forward we needed to stop and move with the project. This week we met with the teams who will be implementing the task and creating the test, partnering with them in the content creation areas so we can help hone the end result. Yet our work is not over, we are not simply handing the information over to a testing company and stepping away as they create a static test to disseminate across the state. We want this to be a living document where those who have labored to create the outlines and partial content will have input up to the last steps of creation, and beyond that to update the exam as it becomes live, according to student success, and numerous diagnostics the testing platform will deliver. We hope for ongoing feedback and development.

So far our ever aggressive schedule remains as is, and we hope for field testing and validation by Spring 2016, with the idea that roll out of the exam across the state will begin the following Fall. At the moment this appears to be a very viable timeline.

I am extremely excited to be a part of a process that has this much potential for bettering the college experience for so many students, and which can alter the ways in which students perceive and progress through their educational pathways.

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