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Community Colleges May Be Best Hope to Close Achievement Gap, Says ETS


Community colleges are the “last, best hope” for closing the achievement gap for racially, ethnically and economically disadvantaged students, said the president of the Educational Testing Service during a two-day conference in Princeton, N.J. But community colleges will need help to meet the challenge.

Last month, ETS and the American Association of Community Colleges hosted “Addressing Achievement Gaps: How Community Colleges Contribute to Equity in Education and the Workforce,” which attracted nearly 200 participants from colleges, foundations and organizations across the nation.

According to data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), reading scores for 17-year-olds narrowed dramatically for Black and Hispanic students between 1975 and 1988. From 1990 to 1999, however, gaps in reading and mathematics remained constant or grew slightly, and little progress has been seen since. More alarmingly, Black and Hispanic students’ skills in English, math and science are about four years behind those of White students, according to the NAEP data, also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

Theories on why the gaps continue to persist despite economic and civil rights gains for racial and ethnic minorities range from the low expectations of educators to watered-down academic offerings to disinterest by the students and their families in their schooling. The ETS conference, like recent public initiatives including the No Child Left Behind Act, focused on eradicating the gap, no matter what the causes.

Dr. Michael Nettles, senior vice president of ETS’ Center for Policy Evaluation and Research, noted that this is the organization’s seventh conference on the issue of imbalanced outcomes in education, but the first to focus on it at the postsecondary level.

Nettles moderated an opening discussion between Kurt M. Landgraf, the president and chief executive officer of ETS, and Dr. George Boggs, president and CEO of the American Association of Community Colleges.

“We need to realize that the United States is in a serious holding pattern relative to educational attainment by its citizens,” Landgraf told the educators. “We are leaving behind a larger and larger cohort of our students. We must do something, and frankly, the community colleges may be our very last, best hope, because you are dealing with the majority of the students that we have traditionally left behind.”

Landgraf noted that almost 50 percent of all higher education students began their postsecondary work at community colleges. The average age of community college students is 29, and 59 percent are low-income. Almost 40 percent are the first in their family to go to college, and 34 percent are minorities.

Landgraf added that 42 percent of community college freshmen enroll in one or more remedial courses. “Community colleges are not designed to be the 13th grade, but in many ways, you are the 13th grade,” he said.

Boggs warned of a widening gap between the advanced skills required by American industries and the declining skills of potential workers. He said that schism is increasingly motivating businesses to outsource jobs overseas.

“If we do not succeed in closing the skills gap, it will reduce the productivity of our country, which will reduce the standard of living for all of us and maybe even jeopardize our national security,” Boggs said. “We cannot close this skills gap unless we close the equity gaps in our country. Children from low-income families and families of color do not have the same access to higher education in the United States or the same success once they get into higher education, even into community colleges.”

Dr. Irwin S. Kirsch, ETS’ distinguished presidential appointee and one of the authors of its report, “America’s Perfect Storm: Three Forces Changing Our Nation’s Future,” released in February, warned that “not only are we going to have tens of millions of people competing for jobs at the lower end of the distribution, but we are also going to be competing with people around the world with economies with their lower wages.

“As a society and as a community, we are at a crossroads in American history,” Kirsch said. “We face a subtle danger, one in which we grow wider and wider apart, one in which we become politically more polarized, and if that happens, the quality of our democracy is at stake. What kind of investments are we going to make in people to have the kind of society I think we want to have — if we want to go back to a time when we had shared prosperity?”

–Angela P. Dodson

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