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Investigating the Alignment of High School and Community College Assessments in California


The California Community College system is the largest system of higher education in the world. Its 72 districts and 109 campuses served more than 2.5 million students in the 2005–2006 academic year. According to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Web site (, the “…primary missions of the Colleges are to offer academic and vocational education at the lower division level for both recent high school graduates and those returning to school. Another primary mission is to advance California’s economic growth and global competitiveness through education, training, and services that contribute to continuous workforce improvement.” In addition, the Strategic Plan for the California Community Colleges lists the missions of the community college system as transfer education, basic skills and English language proficiency instruction, economic and workforce development, lifelong learning, and providing associate’s degrees and certificates (California Community Colleges, 2006). The Strategic Plan also lists several strategic goals for the community college system. These include: increase college awareness and access; promote student success and readiness; strengthen partnerships for economic and workforce development; improve system effectiveness; and provide enhanced resources. This study focuses on only one aspect of these multiple objectives and that is the goal of promoting student success and readiness by evaluating the system of evaluating and placing students into community college courses.

As a result of the open access policy in place at community colleges in California, not all of the students who enroll are prepared for the academic rigors of college-level work. A recent study from the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy concludes that the open access policies of California’s community colleges have succeeded in enhancing enrollments, but have had the unintended consequence of inhibiting college completion (Shulock & Moore, 2007). They argue that since only one in four degreeseeking community college students actually earns a certificate or degree, transfers to a four-year university, or achieves some combination of those outcomes within six years of enrolling in a community college, policies should be changed to encourage better educational outcomes rather than simply focusing on allowing students to enroll.

Additional data offer further support to the argument that many students enrolling from high school into community colleges in California are unprepared for college-level coursework. For example, the strategic planning research report entitled, Environmental Scan: A Summary of Key Issues Facing California Community Colleges Pertinent to the Strategic Planning Process stated, “A recent survey of California community college placement test results indicated that only about 9% of students place in transfer level math and about 27% of students place in transfer level English…over 70% of students place in remedial math and 42% place in remedial English” (Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges, 2005, p. 6). This means that the vast majority of students are initially placed in courses for which they will not receive credit at a California State University or University of California campus if and when they choose to transfer.

Having such large numbers of students take remedial courses is not without consequence. Students who start out in the remedial levels of math and reading courses have limited probability of attempting transfer level courses at the community college. The likelihood of attempting a transfer level English course after beginning in a reading fundamentals course at the community college is only 25% (Research and Planning Group for California Community Colleges, 2005). The numbers are more dismal for mathematics. The likelihood of taking a transfer level math course after starting in a basic level math course is only 10%. The Research Group report says, “Empirical evidence suggests that those who begin at the lowest levels of basic skills are unlikely to achieve a degree or transfer to a university” (p. 6). Given this evidence, there is reason to be concerned about the fact that one in every three students in the community colleges enrolls in a basic skills class.


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