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A culture of assessment promotes student success

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These students attended a Summer Bridge readiness program before starting their freshman year at Westmoreland County Community College in Pennsylvania. ​
Community colleges under pressure to increase completion rates and student outcomes are increasingly relying on assessments to measure their progress and fine-tune their programs to achieve better results.
 
Lake Area Technical Institute (LATI) in South Dakota collected and analyzed data on  students, graduates and businesses to make sure its education programs are meeting employers' needs. 
 
LATI’s success in connecting its graduates to jobs helped it earn recognition as one of 10 finalists for the $1-million Aspen Prize, which will be awarded to community colleges that have dramatically improved student outcomes. The Aspen Institute cited the college’s success rate of 98 percent. According to LATI Vice President Michael Cartney, 76 percent of graduates are employed, and 22 percent are continuing in higher education.
 
LATI President Deb Shephard also was honored at a White House Champions of Change event in September in honor of the college’s high graduation and job placement rates.
 
Continuous improvement
 
When determining whether to offer a specific program, Cartney said, LATI considers three questions: "Can we attract students for this program? Do we have the capacity to offer the program? And are there good-paying jobs for graduates?"
 
Students are assessed at the end of the year and again six months after they graduate to determine whether they have found good-paying jobs in fields for which they prepared. LATI also asks employers how former students are doing, and the college uses that data to make improvements, Cartney said.
 
“We see assessment as a continuous process. You assess and make adjustments, then repeat the process,” he said.
 
In one instance, the pass rate for the medical fire rescue certification program wasn’t where administrators thought it should be, so officials went back and revamped the curriculum and talked to students about what connects with them and why, Cartney said. 

“We want the pass rate to be as close to 100 percent as possible,” he said.
 
In another example, students in a course on boiler systems were struggling with the math, so LATI moved the required math course for that program from the second to the first semester.
 
Every program at LATI has at least four to five industry partners who meet regularly with faculty and administrators to provide advice on new trends in the industry, what the curriculum should cover and what technology the college should provide. There’s also a strategic advisory council that offers a broader view of the industry and how LATI can meet local workforce needs.
 
Every LATI student gets a graduation plan when they enroll, which spells out every class they must take each semester to earn a degree or certificate in their field of study. Instructors know what’s on students graduation plans and make sure they take the needed courses.
 
The faculty also does a lot of mentoring, Cartney said. He believes instructors’ personalities are more important than their credentials, and LATI hires teachers who are good at “connecting with people.”
 
“The goal of LATI is not about being the best; it’s about making our students the best,” he said.
 
Culture of evidence
 
Westmoreland County Community College (WCCC) in Pennsylvania has adopted a “culture of evidence” as part of its involvement with the Achieving the Dream (ATD) initiative. As a result, decisions are based on student success and completion data.
 
For example, WCCC completely revamped its developmental education program after looking at student success and persistence rates, particularly among students taking more than one developmental course, said Daniel Obara, president of the college.
 
Previously, students didn’t take development courses until they needed a prerequisite for English or math. Now students who need two or more developmental courses have to take them in the first semester, along with a one-credit orientation course, and they take them together in a cohort with other students at the same level.
 
Since that change was adopted about four years ago, completion and retention rates have improved about 2 to 3 percentage points a year, Obara said. 

“We think that is very significant, if you move the needle that degree,” he said.
 
Before WCCC joined ATD, changes in policy were mostly made according to anecdotal evidence, Obara said. Now, whenever changes are proposed, “people say, 'Where’s the data to support your position?'”
 
That has required a greater investment in research, he said. The college used a federal $2-million, four-year Title III grant to create three additional research staff positions--i​​t had just one before--and make other improvements to implement its ATD goals.
 
Another component of WCCC’s ATD strategy is a Summer Bridge program for incoming freshman. The 21 students who participated this summer took developmental reading and math courses, along with personal-development classes covering study skills and career exploration, to prepare them for college-level work.
 
“Achieving the Dream really provided the impetus for us to develop a culture of evidence,” Obara said. “It has permeated every aspect of college strategic planning, learning outcomes assessment and overall decision-making. It led to an overall transformation in how we make decisions.”
 
Using data to change math
 
Florence-Darlington Technical College (FDTC) in South Carolina has seen strong gains in student success after using assessment data to redesign its approach to developmental math.
 
Math courses are often an obstacle for students who struggle with basic concepts and tend to drop out when they fail. That was the case at FDTC, where 67 percent of students are placed in remedial math. In 2005, the passing rate for those students was only about 50 percent, said Debi McCandrew, head of the college’s math and computer program.
 
FDTC’s initiative to improve its success rate, the Quality Enhancement Plan (QEP), was highlighted in a report on effective community college math education based on research from the MetLife Foundation and published last spring by Jobs for the Future.
 
The centerpiece of the QEP is a Mathematics and Technology Hub​, which provides a combination of computer-assisted instruction and traditional lectures in remedial math courses and math courses that are prerequisites for college-level math. FDTC has two hub classrooms with 50 computers in each serving 1,300 students per semester.
 
Students work in the hub on Pearson’s My Math Lab, while instructors and tutors are on hand to answer questions and provide additional help. 
 
The hub puts students into a “forced homework situation,” McCandrew said. The college created a “master course” in math, with every teacher using the same test and the same homework. At the start of a lesson, students take a pre-test, and if they get 80 percent of the answers correct, they can skip that chapter.

Comparing results
 
FDTC created a data analysis team to measure whether these changes had an impact on learning outcomes and compared the results with those of students in a traditional learning environment. Combined data from 2006 to 2010 shows that learning outcomes for students in the hub were about 9 percent higher in developmental basic math, 44 percent higher in developmental pre-algebra, 34 percent higher in introductory algebra and 14 percent higher in intermediate algebra than students in traditional classes. 
 
“The implementation of the QEP has been a constant process of monitoring and adjusting,” states a report on the program’s results after five years.
 
For example, the staff tried different ways of configuring students’ time and determined the best approach was to provide two lecture hours and three hub hours a week, McCandrew said. In another change, the post-assessment was made part of the final exam to increase students’ motivation to take it more seriously.
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