Published Online: August 20, 2012
Published in Print: August 22, 2012, as Blogs of the Week

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How Valuable Are College-Placement Tests?

College readiness is under scrutiny like never before. As tricky as it is to define exactly what "college readiness" is, it could be even trickier to figure out how to assess such readiness. Colleges have long used placement tests to figure out whether students are ready for entry-level, credit-bearing coursework or if they should be funneled instead into remedial (or "developmental") classes.

Boatloads of students are ending up in remedial coursework. Whether that is an indicator of poor high school preparation, poor assessment instruments, or both, the depressing results for students are the same: Getting mired in those classes drastically reduces their chances of finishing college.

Recent research found that placement-test results are weaker predictors of success in college courses than are high school grades.

Now, a new report explores some of the changes that colleges are making—or contemplating—to make the readiness-and-placement conversation more meaningful and productive. The report, by Boston-based Jobs For the Future, looks at things states and localities are doing to downplay placement tests, change them, or offer students more support as they approach them.

The study points out that the common assessments being designed by the two big state testing consortia offer a potential bridge over the placement tests colleges have required. In theory, at the moment, large swaths of the higher education systems in those two consortia have agreed to use the results of the common assessments as proxies of "readiness," and allow students who hit the "college readiness" marks on those tests to skip remedial courses.

—Catherine Gewertz


Pa. School Changes Stance, Will Admit Students With HIV

The teenager known as "Abraham Smith" will be allowed to attend the Milton Hershey School, if he so chooses.

The student, who goes by that alias in court documents, had been denied admission to the private school in Hershey, Pa., because he had HIV. The family of the student, whose lawyer says he is now 14, sued in federal court, saying the policy at the school, which serves economically and socially disadvantaged students, violated the federal Americans With Disabilities Act.

The school contended in court documents that admitting Smith posed a "direct threat" to the "health and safety of others at the school." They said their primary concern had been the transmission of the disease through unprotected consensual sex with other students. Students live in on-campus homes with 10 to 12 other students. School officials argued that their experience running the school indicated that "no child consistently makes responsible decisions which consider and protect the well-being of others."

But this month, Milton Hershey's president, Anthony Colistra, issued a statement saying that the school, which opened more than a century ago and serves nearly 1,800 students from needy backgrounds, had changed its stance and would enroll students with HIV, including Smith.

Colistra said that he had recently spoken with U.S. Department of Justice officials, who made it clear they disagreed with "how we evaluated the risks and applied the law."

"I publicly extend a heartfelt apology to him and to his family for the impact of our initial decision," Colistra said in the statement. "We hope to welcome this young man to our school family in the future."

The student's family had cited research and documents from sources such as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Association of State Boards of Education stating that the presence of a person who has an HIV infection or who has been diagnosed with AIDS poses no significant risk to students in school or athletic settings, and that there have been no known cases of HIV transmission in those settings.

The student, described as an honor roll member and athlete who is entering 9th grade, hasn't yet decided whether to accept the school's offer, said Ronda Goldfein, the lawyer representing him.

—Sean Cavanagh


House Offers 'Fresh' Take on Food Program for Poor Children

When a U.S. House committee signed off on its version of the farm bill last month, the panel proposed an unusual twist to the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program.

The committee wants the program to allow the snacks made with fresh produce served at those schools to include frozen, canned, and dried varieties of the same fruits and veggies.

The program explicitly excludes these items now.

The 10-year-old Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program, which began with four states and the Zuni tribe in New Mexico, now operates in all 50 states and several U.S. territories. More than 4,000 elementary schools participate, and the program has an annual budget of $150 million.

And that's what's driving the House proposal, first reported in The Washington Post, said Kristy Anderson, a government-relations manager for the American Heart Association, in Washington. The same interest groups that wanted a small amount of tomato paste on a slice of pizza to count as a serving of vegetables in school lunches are pressing for the expansion, she said.

The American Heart Association and federal dietary guidelines endorse consumption of all forms of fruits and vegetables as part of a healthy diet, Anderson said, but added that "the evidence shows that the population this program is targeting does not get the recommended amount" of fresh produce.

But some members of the agribusiness community don't like being cut out of the school produce picture—even though many school lunches and breakfasts, far larger programs, include frozen, canned, and dried fruits and vegetables.

"This expansion will give schools year-round access to the widest possible variety of healthy and affordable fruits and vegetables in all forms, including frozen," said Kraig R. Naasz, the chief executive officer of the American Frozen Food Institute, in McLean, Va. He credited agriculture committee Chairman Frank Lucas, R-Okla., and Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., in particular.

The proposal to expand the program may not get any traction in the Senate.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, created the program, and he has reiterated his desire to keep it pure.

"I'm regularly lobbied to add nuts to the program, to add dried fruits to the program, to add canned and frozen fruits and vegetables to the program," Harkin said in a speech last year to the United Fresh Produce Association. "Hell, I once had someone suggest that Congress add beef jerky to the program."

—Nirvi Shah

Vol. 32, Issue 01, Page 13

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