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Searching for an Authentic Definition of Student Success

Published: December 2012

Author:  Harrell, Kim, and Holcroft, Carolyn, Governance and Internal Policy Committee Members

Educators, policymakers, and other stakeholders have long debated what it means for students to be successful, and the Student Success Initiative has brought the discussion to the forefront yet again. The Student Success Task Force recommendations indicate the measures in the Accountability Report for Community Colleges, more commonly known as the ARCC Scorecard, as the basis for setting goals at both local and state levels. The ARCC Scorecard certainly provides useful data, including an overarching view of student persistence, degree and certificate completion, and progression through remedial coursework. Although these metrics are part of the picture, many faculty are emphatic that they are inadequate and exclude some of the most important aspects of success. Not every student who comes to our system has the goal of fulfilling remediation requirements, achieving a certificate or associate degree, or transferring to baccalaureate institution. Rather, California community college students comprise an extremely complex demographic with characteristics and life circumstances that directly affect both their goals for themselves and our goals for them as educators. Can a student be successful without meeting one of the standard metrics? Faculty throughout the state would answer this question with a resounding “yes.”

For example, Jared is the first in his family to attend college. He lives in an economically depressed area, and his most immediate goal is to obtain full-time employment as quickly as possible in a job that both interests him and will allow him to support himself. His passion lies in health and fitness, and he entered college with the goal of completing the personal trainer certificate program. However, after successfully completing the first few courses, Jared was able to pass the national exam, and he left school before completing the certificate when he was offered a full-time job at a fitness center as a personal trainer.

Similarly, Sharon is a working mother of two who is attending her local community college to improve her keyboarding skills in order to earn a promotion. She has no degree or certificate aspirations, nor does she plan to persist beyond successfully completing her keyboarding class. Sharon perseveres, passes the class, and earns her promotion.

Jared and Sharon are just two examples of success that are not currently reflected in the ARCC metrics. Even though job attainment, promotion, and salary increases are concrete success indicators that are relatively easy to measure, the ARCC report does not account for them, nor are they communicated at the system level where policy and funding decisions are made.

But the ARCC report also fails to include an even more significant element of success, one that seems more abstract and subjective and does not lend itself as readily to quantitative measurement systems: student learning. As faculty, we strive to help students gain knowledge and confidence in a particular discipline. We are even more fervent, however, about helping them become competent in the “big picture” outcomes that employers are demanding and that so many colleges have articulated as institution-level goals: communication, critical thinking, quantitative literacy, and citizenship. Success means empowering our students to contribute to finding solutions to challenges in their communities and to become thoughtful members of society. Although these institutional-level goals seem more difficult to measure, they lie at the heart of what we do. We do not have to start from scratch: faculty have already been testing many different approaches at their colleges, and we must continue to share these ideas with each other. Goals such as these are no less valuable to California’s vitality than more easily quantifiable measures, but they seem glaringly absent from the ARCC Scorecard metrics.

Education in the United States is rapidly evolving, and community college faculty must therefore develop novel ways to capture student success and learning more comprehensively and to more effectively communicate these successes to the public both formally and informally. We may be able to learn from our partners in adult education, who have adopted the Comprehensive Adult Student Assessment System (CASAS). The data obtained through CASAS is compiled in the California Adult Education Annual Performance Report, which shows outcomes for hundreds of thousands of students in the program, including those who were served at California community colleges. The intake form paints a clear and comprehensive picture of who their students are and goes beyond the standard demographics (e.g., age, gender, race, and ethnicity) to dive deeper into student characteristics and goals such as personal status (e.g., veteran, displaced homemaker, etc.), native language, primary and secondary goals for one year, work status, highest degree earned, and affiliation with special programs such as Perkins or State Corrections. This rich student profile is coupled with learner results in a variety of categories, including work status (e.g., got a job, entered an apprenticeship, entered job training, etc.), citizenship successes (e.g., achieved U.S. citizenship, registered to vote for the first time, increased involvement in the community), and personal or family successes (e.g., increased involvement in their children’s education or met another family goal).

In addition to the measured successes, CASAS provides a reporting mechanism for those individuals who leave the program—a type of data that would be of use to community college faculty, who have great interest in understanding the reasons that students do not complete our programs. CASAS offers a solution through the assessment process by capturing “reasons for exiting,” which include program completion, met goal, got a job, moved, lack of childcare, family problems, lack of transportation, health problems, and others. The CASAS system lets adult education faculty know who their students are, why they are in the program, and what their outcomes are, whether they be “completers” or “leavers.”

The truest definition of student success is determined by the goals and personal situation of each individual student. For this reason, no single comprehensive statement or simple set of metrics can offer a complete and meaningful picture of the many ways in which our students succeed every year at all of our colleges. Nevertheless, although tracking and defining student outcomes and progress is a difficult task, we have an obligation to our students and our society to develop meaningful student success metrics and indicators and to find ways to more authentically communicate our students’ successes on the ARCC Scorecard. We must continue to work to help policy makers both within and outside of our system understand that simple definitions and purely quantitative measures cannot present an accurate image of the many ways in which our students succeed or of how our colleges serve the state. Only through our continued and determined efforts in this area can we ensure that the metrics by which student success is measured will benefit both our students and the state as a whole and will align with the important and complete mission of the California Community Colleges.

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