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By David Spence
his summer, the National Center for Public Policy and
Higher Education and the Southern Regional Education
Board (SREB) published “Beyond the Rhetoric:
Improving College ReadinessThrough Coherent State Policy,”
a report describing how states can improve their efforts to
improve high school students’ college readiness. It outlines
the magnitude and nature of the college-readiness problem
and suggests a more systemic and comprehensive set of steps
that states can use to address this challenge more urgently and
The extent of the readiness problem
“Beyond the Rhetoric” asserts that high school students’
lack of academic readiness for college is much more severe
than many policymakers understand or than has been widely
reported. Identifying the size of the readiness problem is
difficult because in most states postsecondary education
does not share common college-readiness standards that are
applied through common assessments and qualifying scores
for all entering freshmen.
And even in the few states where postsecondary education
uses the same readiness assessment for entering freshmen,
the performance levels expected of students are too low to
predict their chances for success in college accurately. So,
based on these varying standards, college-placement tests and
low scores, many state policymakers and education leaders
estimate that only about 25 to 35 percent of students entering
public four-year institutions, and about 60 percent of those
in community colleges,
need remedial education.
The problem is far
greater than that.
Research and several
states’ experiences now
strongly suggest that
these rates would be
much higher if states had
higher, more uniform
standards to help them
predict high school
students’ chances for
success in college—like
the new Common Core State Standards adopted by many
states across the nation in the past year. Two examples in
which such readiness standards are applied to large numbers
of students clearly show the magnitude of the readiness
• ACT, Inc. has established college-readiness benchmarks
in reading and mathematics that correlate with students’
December 2010
Not Ready for College
States must have a systemic, comprehensive agenda for college preparation
success in first-year college courses.
While the benchmark scores of 21 in
reading and 23 in math are modest,
these scores (if applied by all colleges
in determining students’ college
readiness) would result in two-thirds
of all ACT test takers who enroll in
college requiring remedial education
in English, math or both.
• A similar conclusion has
emerged in the massive California
State University system, which for
many years has applied substantial
placement or readiness standards
in reading, writing and math linked
to first-year college coursework. All
first-time students at all 23 Cal State
campuses must meet these standards, principally through
performance on common statewide placement exams given
in high school. Despite a systemwide admissions policy
that requires students to have taken a college-preparatory
curriculum and earn a B average or higher, about 68 percent
of the 50,000 entering freshmen at Cal State campuses require
remediation in language arts or math, or both. Most states
likely would have similar remediation rates if they employed
similar college-readiness standards and placement tests across
all of their public community colleges and less selective public
So, why are the rates of students who need remedial
education in college underestimated by 20 or 30
percentage points, or more? One reason is the continuing
misunderstanding between college
and college
(or placement). Students are admitted to college
using varying kinds and levels of criteria, including their
grades, courses taken, and SAT and ACT scores. Admissions
criteria are high at selective public universities, lower at most
regional universities, and virtually non-existent at community
colleges. More than 80 percent of freshmen who enter
public institutions attend these less-selective or open-door
universities and community colleges.
Once admitted, students’ reading, writing and math-
related skills are assessed. The high admissions criteria in
selective universities normally means that students who
qualify for those institutions already have the skills they need
to succeed in first-year courses. However, lower, or fewer,
admissions criteria—or the absence of them—at most public
regional universities and community colleges requires that
admitted students are tested on their reading, writing and
math-related readiness skills, because college admissions in
these institutions does not guarantee college readiness.
There also are technical reasons behind the low estimates
About 68 percent of
the 50,000 entering
freshmen at Cal
State campuses
require remediation
in language arts or
math, or both.