Book highlights YVC’s success advancing equity in English instruction

Getting a strong start in college matters when it comes to whether a student stays in school and completes their degree or certificate — especially students from historically underserved populations.

That’s why Yakima Valley College English faculty members decided to undertake a significant overhaul of how it placed students in writing courses at the start of their college career. Those efforts, started several years ago, are highlighted in a chapter of the new book “Writing Placement in Two-Year Colleges: The Pursuit of Equity in Postsecondary Education.”

Co-authored by YVC English instructors Carolyn Calhoon-Dillahunt and Travis Margoni, their chapter “Narrowing the Divide in Placement at a Hispanic-Serving Institution: The Case of Yakima Valley College” offers insights for other community colleges interested in reforming writing placement assessment to advance educational access and equity.

Calhoon-Dillahunt and Margoni noted that the test YVC used to place new students into writing courses through the mid-2010s wasn’t particularly accurate.

“It often misplaced students, especially minoritized and marginalized students, into developmental coursework, which costs students time and money and often ultimately results in students not completing degrees,” Calhoon-Dillahunt said.

So an announcement in 2015 that the test was being discontinued presented a perfect opportunity for YVC’s English department to explore other options that would complement its writing curriculum and reduce equity gaps.

The department developed an evidence-based placement methodology that provided incoming students with multiple ways to demonstrate college-level readiness in reading and writing. For example, recent high school graduates or GED earners can provide their high school GPA or SBAC (Smarter Balanced Assessment) or GED test scores. Returning students or those without other evidence of college readiness could take a customized version of Boise State University’s multiple measures placement tool, The Write Class.

Calhoon-Dillahunt said that since YVC implemented the placement changes during 2016-17, the college has exceeded expectations and goals. Prior to the change, about two-thirds of students placed into developmental writing courses (ENGL 90T or ENGL 95). Now, about two-thirds of students place directly into a college-level English course (ENGL& 101), while maintaining a high success rate.

“While historically underserved students of color are still over-represented in developmental coursework, placement-related equity gaps have closed substantially, and success rates are equitable,” Calhoon-Dillahunt said. At the time the chapter was written, YVC led Washington state’s community and technical college system in the percentage of students who completed their gateway English courses within the first year.

“This means that students not only save time and money, they also are able to more quickly access other college courses that have writing prerequisites, which is an important factor in retention and completion,” Calhoon-Dillahunt said. “Having a tool that places students more equitably from the start of their college career helps reduce equity gaps in other areas.”

Reforming how students are placed into English courses is one of many ongoing efforts at YVC to advance more equitable outcomes for students.

“Empowering students and identifying the right placements for them is just one step in improving student success rates in YVC’s English courses,” Margoni said.

In order to help students meet the learning outcomes for their courses and pass them, for example, the English department has been engaged in an antiracist writing assessment ecology project over the past two years. Through that project, English faculty have implement assessment and curriculum reforms in English 101 with an eye toward antiracism and equity.

“Ultimately, we hope students find ownership in our curriculum and that their assets help to ensure their success in and beyond English courses,” Margoni said. “We know we have more work to do, and we’re grateful to be surrounded by brilliant, compassionate colleagues and administrators who drive and support our reforms.”

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