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College Readiness: A Moving Target?

By Pamela Burdman

College readiness is becoming the Holy Grail for policymakers, foundations, and education leaders looking to strengthen the nation’s K-12 education system. They are taking their lead from public colleges and universities: High remediation rates there among recent high school graduates are garnering increasing scrutiny, leading more and more states to include remedial placement statistics in feedback reports that go to high schools.

It seems like a positive sign that K-12 is taking the issue of college preparation seriously, though I worry that the high school reforms could be on a collision course with the route some colleges are taking. In Where to Begin, a report I recently wrote for JFF, I uncover a number of ways that colleges and state systems are downplaying the very tests that once dictated remedial placement.

Ironically, one of the most common replacements for an exam score is high school grades. Research has shown that high school GPA does a better job predicting students’ success in college than either placement tests (like COMPASS and ACCUPLACER) or admissions exams (such as the SAT and ACT). This finding typically surprises people because they tend to assume that standards differ widely across high schools. In fact, studies consistently find the same result—perhaps because high school grades measure students’ performance over long periods of time, not just for a few hours while sitting for an exam.

Long Beach City College is one of the institutions piloting the use of high school grades for students coming straight out of high school. Last year, LBCC students were required to complete an average of 5.6 semesters of developmental courses. The college projects that the pilot will significantly reduce remediation rates while increasing enrollments in college-level courses by 350 percent or more. If students are able to succeed in these courses, as expected, other colleges could go this route—in fact, another 22 colleges in California are part of a study to explore doing just that.

The use of high school grades is just one way that test scores are becoming less influential in students’ pathway through college. Here are two others tied to colleges’ new thinking how they deliver developmental education:

  • Different approaches to “accelerating” students through developmental education (by compressing the remedial sequences) or out of developmental education altogether (by placing students who came close to passing the placement exams directly into college-level courses—in some cases with additional academic support).
  • Policies for basing students’ math placement not just on their test score, but also on a determination of what level and type of math is required for their intended major.

Pamela Burdman is a Chicago-based consultant working with foundations and nonprofits on efforts to improve college readiness and success. She is the author of the JFF report Testing Ground: How Florida Schools and Colleges Are Using a New Assessment to Increase College Readiness.