college placement

Removing Barriers for College Placement

By Emily Rogan

Why the accelerated learning program at Howard Community College works.

At Howard Community College (HCC), in Columbia, Maryland, administrators have been taking a different approach to entrance and placement requirements for students who are close but not quite ready for college-level courses.

For several years, the school has made the English Accelerated Learning Program available to new students who fall short of the reading or writing requirements necessary to take English 121, a gateway class to other general-education courses.

Rather than take a developmental-education class, students enroll in the college-level class and simultaneously receive an additional hour of instruction in the subject.

Keep students moving forward

“It’s critically important, because we have students who are close to being college-ready,” explains Sharon Pierce, HCC’s vice president of academic affairs. “Instead of taking a developmental-education course, they take college level. It allows them to stay on track and on a pathway to completion without having to delay a semester.”

Initially, the program focused on students who were reading but not writing at college level. The program’s success led to offering the same to students who write at college level but lag in reading and to those who speak English as a second language.

Positive results for college placement

“Students are performing the same or better than students who placed right into the college-level course,” Pierce says. In writing and reading labs, students concentrate on the skills that need strengthening.

These students are required to finish the same assignments and are held to the same standards as their classmates.

Clearly the program is working: In 2014, 291 students participated with an 85 percent success rate.

“It accelerates them toward completion,” says Cindy Peterka, HCC’s vice president of student services. “It psychologically frames students’ learning in a way that they see that, by working hard, they can achieve that level of success. It builds confidence in their learning.”

Different math challenges

For students who fail the Accuplacer math test (a computerized, untimed placement exam), HCC has designed its own second-attempt test. “If you can demonstrate that you know intermediate-level algebra by this quiz, then you are welcome to take the for-credit course,” says Bernadette Sandruck, acting dean of mathematics at HCC.

“We have had attempts at accelerated math along the same timeline as English, but there are differences,” explains Sandruck. “There is a huge amount of content that you’re building upon. And the number of topics is very large.”

HCC currently mixes together intermediate and college-level algebra. “We might think it’s a great idea,” says Sandruck, “but it’s not always the popular option. We’re asking students to take on what they might see as the hardest courses.”

“The new focus in math education is to worry less about a particular standard and how much algebra you know and move toward what math you need for the future,” Peterka says. But many students change their mind. “When they go down a nonalgebra track, they let go of a lot of majors. Students need to know what it is they’re choosing.”

“There has to be a statewide commitment rather than each college going off in their own direction,” she adds.

Preemptive strategies

To address college readiness before students enroll, HCC has been working with its partner high schools to align curriculums and offer dual enrollment.

There’s also been an effort to ensure that all students take math in their senior year of high school and to teach precalculus to those students who aren’t college-ready but have an interest in STEM fields.

“We would love to have more students arrive college-ready, and for those who don’t, to shorten the pathways to finish their course of studies,” Pierce says.

Emily Rogan

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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