The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education has reviewed the research, with the assistance of a national advisory panel, and believes it raises a series of questions and important policy issues that should be addressed by California policymakers, community colleges, and high schools:
- First, can locally established college placement standards provide the needed clarity and consistency about the knowledge and skills required for college readiness in an era of statewide high school standards
and assessments and a highly mobile community college student population? Would the goal of clarity and consistency about college readiness standards—a goal that is shared by community colleges and high schools—be better served by a statewide defi nition of college readiness standards and community college placement tests that support those standards? Does the current practice of variable standards from one community college to another serve any compelling educational purpose? The issue is not the competence of local campus faculty and administrators to defi ne standards and select placement instruments, but rather what strategy is most likely to stimulate improvement in college preparation for California’s high schools.
On balance, the National Center concludes that California’s students would be better served by clear, unequivocal, consistent statewide college placement standards and cutoff scores systematically aligned with high school assessments and college placement tests.
Even in the area of English language arts, where the research found considerable alignment between high school and community college assessments, we believe that a statewide approach could send a more straightforward and powerful signal to high schools about college preparedness—a signal that could influence curriculum as well as assessments. California might adopt one of the approaches already widely in use, such as the augmented CST, or one of the commercially developed tests in English language arts.
- Second, the discrepancies between high school mathematics assessments and the community college placement examinations reflect a fundamental lack of agreement about what knowledge and skills constitute college readiness. This mismatch undermines the efforts of California high school students to prepare for college and the effectiveness of California high schools in improving college readiness.
The National Center concludes that leaders from K–12 education, the community colleges, and the California Department of Education must work together to specify what constitutes readiness for college-level math, so that students will understand what level of math is required for success in certifi cate and degree programs, and in four-year transfer programs. Additionally, it is recommended that industry leaders be consulted about the mathematics competencies necessary for students entering careers in science or math, and for those who are interested in other careers. Consideration should be given to different cutoff scores for students entering career-technical fields, versus those planning on transferring to a four-year college or university.
Once agreement is reached about what constitutes readiness for community college mathematics, high school assessments and community college placement exams should be aligned.
- Third, alignment between high school assessments and community college placement exams is a necessary, but insufficient, strategy for matching students with appropriate instruction. High school and college testing is only one tool needed to improve student success. Other critical factors that influence preparation and achievement include student aspirations, quality of instruction, and quality of curriculum. For example, high school course tests are less important than the content of courses.
- Fourth, statewide and uniform standards and assessments in English language arts and math, once developed, will require a major statewide communications campaign targeted at high schools, high school teachers and counselors, students, and parents, in order to disseminate the college preparedness expectations of the California Community Colleges.
Most students who plan to attend a UC or CSU campus understand that there are clear requirements they must meet. For example, high school students who are interested in UC or CSU are typically advised by teachers, counselors, or parents to take the A–G college preparatory curriculum in high school, to take and score well on college entrance exams, and to enroll in honors and Advanced Placement classes. Students who plan to attend a community college need a similarly clear presentation of the requirements, not for admission, but for college-level coursework.
Additionally, the state, the community colleges, and private foundations should support the initiatives in this area, particularly those programs that stimulate and sustain public school and college faculty involvement and participation in aligning and strengthening instruction, and in developing and sharing data to improve student success. Pilot programs, such as those sponsored by the California Partnership for Achieving Student Success, or Cal-PASS (see sidebar), could be supported to draw together high school teachers and community college faculty in developing effective instructional materials in English language arts and mathematics.
- Fifth, far too many students receive no placement testing at all. All entering community college students should be assessed to determine their readiness for college-level work.