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A Missing Element

A Missing Element
In the Retention Discussion

The current concern about graduation rates in higher education and especially among minority students in historically Black colleges and universities is not without warrant given the high economic costs and the incalculable social costs of low retention. The recently reported trend toward increased college entrance rates among minority students brings little comfort when viewed alongside the retention statistics. Nationwide, the five-year graduation rate barely exceeds 50 percent of those entering four-year colleges and universities. The figure for Black students is more than 10 percentage points lower.
In discussions about the disparity between minority and White retention rates, politicians and academicians alike, have typically focused on levels of college preparedness, socioeconomic differences, and social interaction and adjustment as causes of minority students’ low graduation rates. Consequently, attempts to foster equal opportunity have focused on policies that provide economic aid to minority students and student support services that seek to improve the interpersonal aspects of college life. A few proposals such as career planning assistance and various forms of instructional enrichment have sought to address the academic and intellectual aspects of students’ college experiences. These measures, however, reflect what might be called a “deficiency model” in the problem of minority retention. They suggest that minority students are deficient in areas that are critical to persistence in college.
However, no one, in this culture of blind-faith testing, has questioned the validity of the assessment strategies used to tell students whether they are succeeding, and to make decisions about whether students are allowed to progress to higher levels. Those of us who teach, know that there is no greater determinant of a student’s perception of her/his own ability to succeed than the feedback which assessment provides. Low GPAs have been cited as one of the primary reasons why students leave college prematurely. In the deficiency model, low grades mean, at best, that the student has not learned the essentials of the course but often get interpreted to mean that the student cannot learn the essentials, either because she/he does not have the ability, or has not had the necessary preparation. Yet there is another meaning. Any test only measures a small sample of the many kinds of learning that may have occurred and only validates one method of displaying that learning. So low grades might also mean a mismatch in the learning that actually occurred, the learning that is measured, or the method of assessing of that learning. 
When a single method of assessment is almost exclusively used to measure learning, then only those for whom there is a good fit will be successful. Undergraduate education in the United States relies almost exclusively on objective tests as the measure of student learning. It might well be that nontraditional students, including African American and other students of color are failing to achieve in formal education, not because they have failed to learn, but because they are disadvantaged by the strategies used to assess learning. Moreover, such approaches to assessment send students the message that higher education does not value certain kinds of thinking. These approaches effectively strip the educational experience of its relevance to life in their own cultures, where the knowledge that is of use is knowledge that is interconnected and situated in specific contexts. It is small wonder that staying in school is not highly valued.
It is clear that if higher education is to become more multi-ethnic, both in terms of access and in terms of outcome, that attention must be given to the use of methods of instruction and assessment that are more inclusive. Socio-economic factors undoubtedly are important in the retention issue, but it is naïve to treat assessment itself as unproblematic. It might well be that assessment is one of the missing elements in the retention discussion.

— Dr. Glenda Prime is the program coordinator in the Office of Doctoral Programs in Math and Science Education at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

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