Trust students, not tests, to open pathway to community college success

May 2, 2018

Students at Southwestern Community College in Chula Vista, California.

It’s all about accurately measuring college readiness — and annihilating the achievement gap in the process.

Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin

For far too long, community colleges have relied on often inaccurate assessment tests that each year cause more than a million students nationwide to begin their postsecondary education in remedial courses they may not need. In California alone, more than 170,000 students are placed in remedial, or basic skills, math courses — with more than 110,000 never completing the math required to earn a degree. Even worse, data show students of color are more likely than white students to be sent to multiple remedial courses that do not count toward their college degree. What’s more, each remedial course increases the chances of a student throwing his or her arms up and dropping out.

With mounting evidence that remedial education is not always helpful in getting students to achieve their academic goals, a small but growing number of California colleges are implementing innovative programs to reform how a student’s skill level can be assessed, and what classes to place them in based on those assessments. Giving such efforts a boost, Gov. Jerry Brown last October signed landmark legislation that changes the way student readiness for college-level work is determined. As the author of the legislation that led to that law — Assembly Bill 705 — and as the head of the California Community Colleges system responsible for its implementation, we want to provide additional context to this important conversation.

Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley

Recognizing that student preparedness for college is a primary indicator of success, California has long made improving remedial instruction in our community colleges a major priority. But study after study has concluded that assessment tests alone can be poor indicators of performance, as many — if not most — students do not properly prepare for them. To address this shortcoming, AB 705 requires community colleges to take into account high school coursework, high school grades, and high school grade point average when determining placement. That is because high school preparation, for the most part, provides students with a background strong enough to help them succeed in transfer-level courses. California students are far more prepared than assessment tests have acknowledged, and AB 705 recognizes this fact.

Overwhelmingly, research shows that most students should begin their educational progress with placement directly into transfer-level English and mathematics. At Cuyamaca College near San Diego, for example, underprepared students are often placed in college-level transfer classes and receive additional support — a process known as corequisite instruction — to ensure success. The result: dramatically higher completion rates for all racial and ethnic groups. What this model illustrates is that affirming students’ capabilities rather than their deficits is the first step toward building a pathway to college graduation; inaccurately blaming students rather than recognizing the consequences of our flaws in assessing capabilities is not the right way to proceed.

The basic engine of AB 705 does not strip faculty and colleges of their roles. It simply requires — given the evidence that remedial education is not always helpful in getting students to reach their academic goals — that colleges utilize assessment and placement practices that maximize the opportunity to enter and complete transfer-level coursework.

The Legislature and the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office recognize that major systematic changes require engagement and support from key constituencies in the community college system. When AB 705 progressed through the legislative process last year, faculty, staff, administrators and student representatives were all involved in crafting language that was eventually signed by the governor.

Now the Chancellor’s Office has convened an AB 705 Implementation Advisory Committee comprising the same stakeholders to review the new law, understand the current research landscape and provide guidance to the chancellor on best practices for implementing it. To ensure colleges have adequate financial resources to support these changes, another law, Assembly Bill 1935 pending in the Legislature, would provide funding for tutoring programs to support students in transfer-level coursework.

In the end, the success of both AB 705 and AB 1935 is dependent on community college faculty supporting our students in and outside of the classroom. If there is additional support they need to make this effort successful, whether through professional development or in researching the impacts of our actions, we are committed to providing it.


Jacqui Irwin (D-Camarillo) is a member of the California State Assembly.  Eloy Ortiz Oakley is chancellor of the California Community Colleges.

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