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of remediation rates: Individual institutions or systems within
states use different tests to determine students’ readiness levels,
and set their own qualifying scores. Also, required qualifying
scores are often too low to predict students’ success in first-
year college courses. Importantly, it is common that most
college-readiness tests do not address the kinds and levels of
reading skills needed for college. Many current placement
tests do not require students to comprehend appropriately
complex texts and write about them accurately. In other
words, current testing for college
readiness often downplays the most
important skill students need in order to
succeed in college courses.
Moreover, through our college-
readiness work with states at SREB, we
have found two other conditions that
suppress statewide efforts to determine
the scope of the readiness problem: The
first is the practice in most states of not
relating readiness-test performance to
actual student-performance outcomes in
the first year of college. Setting accurate
readiness test scores should be an
empirical and validated process.
Second, some officials and educators are concerned that
setting more accurate, predictive and higher scores will force
remediation rates to spike. Indeed, remediation rates may rise
in the near term. But phasing in more accurate measures of
students’ readiness levels is a far better option than allowing
the college-readiness problem to continue unrecognized—and
largely unabated.
Rather than continue to allow too many students who
begin postsecondary education to enroll and never finish any
type of degree or certificate, states and their college systems
are better off setting valid rates now and using the senior year
of high school to address students’ lack of college readiness.
Moreover, where relevant, states need to put on hold plans to
remove remedial education from senior colleges. Remediation
will remain with us for awhile, as states begin to acknowledge
the real size and nature of the college-readiness challenge and
finally begin to address it.
The nature of the readiness problem
The most telling characteristic of the readiness problem
traces to the high percentages of students who pass a college-
preparatory curriculum in high school but do not have the
key foundational learning skills in reading, writing and math
they will need for college. Most students entering four-year,
less-selective public institutions have completed a college-prep
curriculum—but appropriate college-readiness standards
would show that more than 60 percent of those students
would need remedial education. Clearly, at this point, taking
the right courses is not sufficient.
A college-prep curriculum does not ensure the
development of the critical thinking and learning skills
associated with reading, writing and math that are the
fundamental, cross-cutting skills needed for college success
in all subjects. And they are skills that college placement or
readiness tests expose as insufficiently mastered by most
entering students.
In their defense, high schools are hampered by a lack of
clear signals from all postsecondary education about the skills
students need for college. Postsecondary education has been
clear that students need the right courses in high school, but
has not clearly outlined the
kinds
and
levels
of reading, writing
and math-related skills that students need. High schools
cannot help students develop those skills if postsecondary
education has not identified them.
Building a systemic, comprehensive agenda for college
readiness
Strengthening students’ college-readiness skills requires
a
systemic
embedding of high reading, writing and math
standards in high school—as part of a comprehensive
statewide policy agenda that can help states address the
problem on a number of fronts.
The statewide agenda should be based on building
consensus between K–12 and postsecondary education on
the higher, deeper and more specific reading, writing and
math standards that high school students should be expected
to meet. The new Common Core State Standards adopted
recently by many states for K–12 schools can provide the
basis for this step. State assessments in high school can help to
further define and apply these standards statewide.
However, for the standards to lead to higher student
achievement, states must take additional action to make
the college-readiness standards central to high school
coursework, teachers’ development and evaluation, and school
accountability. Moreover, all postsecondary institutions need
to embrace and apply the readiness standards uniformly. In
short, the higher readiness standards will help to improve
college readiness only if they are applied systemically, as part
of a comprehensive state policy agenda, which should include
the following steps:
Common readiness standards
. States need to have all
schools
and
colleges statewide adopt common college-
readiness standards in reading, writing and math, that should
be highlighted components of the official state academic
standards for K–12 schools and that are used by all colleges
in determining students’ readiness for credit-bearing courses.
The content of the standards needs to be expressed in
performance terms through the development of assessments
and curricular frameworks, model assignments and common
grading practices. These performance standards must
predict
true
college readiness, even though the standards
will require students to show higher levels of skill than for
minimum diploma requirements—and higher than existing
college-readiness or college-placement standards now in use
by postsecondary education. States need to validate these
standards by correlating them to actual performance in
introductory college courses. The new Common Core State
Standards provide a sound basis for such readiness standards.
High school tests tied to the readiness standards
. States
need to assess students’ progress in meeting the readiness
standards no later than the junior year of high school,
which in many states could require new or amended state
assessments. The assessments under development by the
assessment consortia associated with the Common Core
States need to address
the college-readiness
challenge with a
clearer understanding
that the problem is
much greater than is
commonly recognized.