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The Dark Side of Dual Enrollment

Different students learn in different ways—we know that. Students know that too.

A precalculus student I talked to on a recent afternoon failed the class last fall and was on her way to failing it again this spring. Sadly, she will probably fail the class in the fall, too. Despite all the class aids (and there were many), she had not reacted to her consistently low exam scores until I spoke to her after class.

Her science major requires that she complete Calculus 1 and possibly Calculus 2. Her mathematics SAT score was 380.

We talked a little bit about the class, her performance, and where she should go next. The student explained that my class is not compatible with her “learning method.” She said that she prefers “that multiplying method, you know, where there are letters, A, B, C.”

I said, “You mean, multiple choice?”

“Yes, that’s the one,” she said. “That’s the method where I learn best. I’m good at figuring out which letters aren’t the right ones.”

She said she was good at multiple choice because she has learned to eliminate wrong answers and get the choices down to one or two and then make a good guess. She has transferred into Sam Houston State University with 65 credit hours (two years!) of “college” classes, all earned at a nearby community college. With possibly one exception (part of a math class), all her community-college classes used multiple choice. She said she didn’t learn well with my “method.”

I gently explained that “my” method—where students have to work out the answers themselves—will now be the norm.  I don’t think she believed me.

Those of us committed to higher education claim that college teaches students to think critically and to solve problems. Yet recent studies (see, for example, this one) suggest we are failing at that task.

Multiple-choice exams, quizzes, and online homework are popular because they are easy to grade and can be given cheaply in large classes. They are “efficient.” The only problem with this efficiency is that it leaves out the “education” part of higher education.

And as it turns out, we’re leaving out the “higher” part too. I discovered that when my student informed me that her 65 hours of college credit also counted toward her junior and senior year high-school classes.

This was a little confusing to me. The student is 18. She just graduated from high school. But she immediately entered Sam Houston as a college junior with 65 credit hours because her junior and senior high-school classes were also simultaneously community-college classes. Her high-school teachers were also, simultaneously, teaching the same class in the same room at the same time to the same students as a cross-listed community-college class.

This is called “dual enrollment.”

I thought I knew dual enrollment. Several of my children took college classes during their senior year, and high-school credit was an option. But it never occurred to me that a high school could just make all its classes for college-bound juniors and seniors into (simultaneous) classes for community-college credit.

These “college classes” were not college level. The student received a failing grade in one math class, but then, after her mother complained to the teacher, the student was allowed to rework some problems and pull her grade up to passing. This teacher continued to let her rework problems and pull up her failing grades in later classes. This apparently explains how she achieved a C in “College Algebra” in her high-school math class in her senior year.

Her math SAT score was in the 11th percentile nationally, far below college requirements. But here at Sam Houston, she was advised out of our developmental math classes and into precalculus because her high-school-senior math class (“College Algebra”) transferred in as our freshman College Algebra class.

This is a new wrinkle in the transition from high school to college. Community colleges in Texas now certify high-school teachers to be community-college teachers and then anoint their classes with college credit. This solves problems with high-school budgets and the high school/college transition. College is now high school.

But wait! Why stop at two years of college credit for high-school classes? Why not give four years of college credit? Students should be able to graduate from high school with a college degree. And, given our shortage of medical doctors, why not let students graduate from high school with medical degrees? The possibilities are endless.

Ken Smith is a professor of mathematics at Sam Houston State University, and Diana Nixon is founder and director of Mpingo Studios.

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