10/21/2010 12:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

New Measurements For Success At Community Colleges?

The U.S. Department of Education's Committee on Measures of Student Success met on Wednesday to discuss if and how measurements of achievement in community colleges will be altered in the coming years. According to Inside Higher Ed, the meeting was the first in a series designed to generate suggestions for Secretary of Education Arne Duncan regarding whether or not the federal government should use metrics of success aside from graduation rates in rating community colleges.

The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System currently publishes degree attainment for first-and full-time students who graduate within four years. Those who support a new means of measurement argue that the IPEDS falsely deflates the success of two year institutions by failing to report on students who transfer to a four year college before graduating, as well as on students who never intend to gain a degree (i.e. individuals who seek a certificate or retraining).

The 14-person panel was mandated by a 2008 legislation that reaffirmed the Higher Education Act of 1965 and includes presidents and chancellors of both two and four year institutions -- as well as others who are likely to favor a more loosely regulated rating system than in previous years.

According to Committee Chair Thomas Bailey, the data currently used is "a type of information which at this point doesn't lead to a productive conversation." Bailey believes that the new metric should include measurements of progress, employment and overall learning outcomes.

Some researchers, like those at California State University Sacramento's Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy, have already produced a detailed analysis of student performance at community colleges. Faced with growing rates of dropouts from two year institutions in California, co-author of the report Colleen Moore said "We're calling for community colleges and the Legislature to prioritize success -- not just enrollment," the San Francisco Chronicle reports.

The study found that 50 percent of students who passed English classes within their first two years graduated, compared with only 20 percent of students who failed such courses, and that 55 percent of students who passed math classes in their first two years attained a degree -- as opposed to a graduation rate of 21 percent for those who did not earn passing marks. The report's authors contend that such figures should encourage states to make a nuanced effort to increase graduation rates by, for example, funding institutions that focus on student achievement in math and English courses.

Although members of the committee would likely be pleased with the Institute's efforts, they stress the importance of the government's stamp on new data. One researcher on the panel, Kevin Carey, told Inside Higher Ed that "it makes a difference when the federal government takes information, gathers it and publishes it. That data has more effect and more meaning than data that comes from other sources."

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