Which Students Are 'College-Ready'? Reforming Inequitable College-Readiness Measures amid COVID-19

Jennifer Hernandez, PCC Policy Intern | October 27, 2020

Through the countless articles about inequities in access to online AP tests, learning pods, and the overall digital divide, COVID-19 has brought long-standing and new educational disparities under a harsh, unwavering spotlight. As students transition from high school to college, there are further divides to consider. One of them is an often overlooked and deeply consequential hurdle in the college enrollment process: course placement.

Nearly 46% of Illinois' high school graduates who enroll in a community college are placed and enroll in developmental coursework (also referred to as remedial coursework) in at least one subject, with students of color disproportionately represented. Despite research challenging the efficacy and equity of using standardized tests and high-stakes placement exams for course placement, many colleges still rely on test scores to determine whether students are ready for college-level classes. As COVID-19 exacerbates inequities in access to test prep and technology, without placement reform, Black and Latinx students and students from low-income communities could be disproportionately locked out of college-level courses, even at our most accessible community colleges.

In response to COVID-19 disruptions, the Illinois Community College Board (ICCB) released placement guidelines to help Illinois colleges better determine students' readiness for college-level courses and reduce the need for students to enroll in developmental education to make up for perceived or actual learning loss.

The guidelines recommend that colleges expedite implementation of ICCB's Final Placement Recommendations and use GPA in place of other assessments when those assessments are unavailable or difficult to access. Regardless, if a student's GPA indicates that they are ready for college-level English (cumulative GPA of 3.0/4.0) or math (cumulative GPA 3.0/4.0 with successful completion of a 4th year of math), the guidelines recommend that the student should not be enrolled in developmental education. ICCB's recommendations also go beyond placement, adding guidelines for assisting students who do not meet the recommended cut-off scores and reducing their time in developmental education, so that students don't fall further behind.

ICCB's emphasis on GPA is a pointed one. Studies on college readiness have indicated that GPA is a better measure of a student's academic performance and potential than ACT and SAT scores, which are skewed by income and race—they reflect differences in wealth, not preparedness. With all the buzz about Zutoring (Zoom-based private tutoring) exacerbating academic disparities between the rich and poor, the reality is, this draws on a legacy of ACT and SAT prep services that have given an edge to students from wealthier, White families since those tests began. Research also calls into question the accuracy of college placement exams such as ACCUPLACER and ALEKS, showing that many students are placed into developmental education when what they really need is tutoring or concurrent supports. Based upon arbitrary and inconsistent cut scores on a single test, students can be enrolled at the same college but be separated by "ready" and "not ready," furthering the educational divide.

The Dev Ed Debate and The Case for Reform

Currently, most colleges use developmental education as a starter kit for students to avoid early failure and transition into college-level coursework. Open-access institutions in particular, including community colleges, need to be able to support students who are not yet ready to take on college-level coursework on their own. Those in favor of traditional developmental education (i.e. separate, pre-college courses for English and Math) argue that these courses allow underrepresented and underprepared students to access colleges where they would otherwise not be allowed to enroll in the first place. From this view, developmental education is designed to increase equity in higher education by affording access. However, research over the years has shown that no identifiable student group benefits from traditional developmental education, and this approach is actually perpetuating inequities in completion. Students are getting in the door, but the question is, why aren't traditional models opening doors to college-level courses? And how can new approaches to developmental education better support students progress toward completion?

Because developmental education is not college-level coursework, students taking these classes rarely earn college credits and must take more classes to complete a college degree, and because developmental education classes typically cost just as much as any other college class, students can run out of financial aid before they are able to complete their degree. Students in developmental education are less likely to graduate, and community college students enrolled in developmental education are less likely to successfully transfer to a four-year university to complete a bachelor's degree. These issues are disproportionately affecting Black and Latinx students, who are more likely to be placed into developmental education and less likely to complete.

By following ICCB's guidance this year and years to come, colleges can help shrink these equity gaps. ICCB encourages colleges to address learning loss and help more students become college-ready without traditional developmental education, by providing alternatives such as tutoring, writing workshops, and other wraparound services designed to bring students up to speed. ICCB recommends that institutions provide these concurrent services to support students who would otherwise be placed into developmental education. Meanwhile, such students would enroll directly in credit-bearing courses and make up for learning loss without having to play catch-up the next semester and beyond.

The efforts to analyze the benefits and drawbacks of developmental education placement have been in the works pre-pandemic. The SJR 41 Advisory Committee, convened by the Illinois General Assembly, was tasked with taking stock of Illinois' developmental education policies and practices. Released on July 1, the Committee's report on scaling reforms lays a blueprint for building evidence-based, context-sensitive reform to support every student. The idea is not to throw students into the deep end and hope they swim. Rather, reforms to developmental education aim to equip students with the skills they need to swim and the chance to do so.

Next Steps and Challenges to Implementation

ICCB's statement on utilizing the placement guidelines in light of COVID-19 reflects the fact that many colleges have not yet implemented ICCB's guidelines or have not adopted them fully. Many colleges that use "multiple measures" in the placement process still rely solely on placement exams and standardized test scores. To find out which public colleges and universities are implementing ICCB's placement recommendations, click here.

Along with the challenges of moving to socially distant instruction, providing wraparound services is an added challenge for underfunded colleges who are also experiencing losses in revenue and uncertainty in the fall. Our most under-resourced colleges will bear the brunt of these impacts—but their students stand to benefit the most from ICCB's guidance. Successful implementation of effective wraparound supports will require additional investment from the state or targeted use of federal CARES funds. Supporting all students requires recognition that a problem exists and a concentrated effort to solve it. Developmental education is among the most important challenges colleges and their students will be facing in an already tumultuous year.

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Guest Blog: Fallen Flat on the Shoulders of My Students

For too long, Illinois' working and low-income residents have borne the brunt of the state's 'flat tax.' A fair tax would ensure the state's wealthiest pay their fair share and Illinois' working and low-income residents have greater access to realizing their dreams - including going to college.

Keisha Rembert

Keisha Rembert | October 2020 
Keisha Rembert is an Assistant Professor at National Louis University. She is a Teach Plus Illinois Policy Fellowship alumna, 2019 Illinois History Teacher of the Year and NCTE's 2019 Outstanding Middle Level Educator in the English Language Arts. The ideas expressed in this piece are the personal opinions of the author and not reflective of or connected to her employer.

My students are the essential workers you see stacking shelves at your local grocery store, the child care workers who are caring for and keeping young children safe, and the ones at the drive-thru window serving you while the world seems paused. They work, attend classes, take care of siblings and ill relatives and oftentimes, have been the sole support for their families during this pandemic. They are the heroes we herald and laud in this time of crisis.

While they gave the lion's share of their energy to care for us all, they are burdened by an unfair tax system that requires more of them still -- as low-income and working people in Illinois pay twice as much as wealthy people in the name of a "flat tax."

My students have given and Illinois has taken.

It is time to right that wrong. A fair tax structure in Illinois means the wealthiest among us pay their fair share, and we do not leave the hefty financial burden to marginalized communities who have long carried this tremendous load.What would a possible state revenue increase of $3 billion a year do for my students, our essential workers? The possibilities are innumerable. It could, first, make additional educational funding more readily available and accessible, enabling my students to continue the education they so desperately desire. Their educational dreams often rest in their ability to pay for their schooling. A fair tax structure could allow for more state-directed dollars to go to financial aid grants like the state's Monetary Award Program (MAP) that makes higher education feasible for them and other Illinoisans for whom college seems like an impossible dream.

With increased revenue and financial investments in higher education, my students mobility to the middle class and beyond is viable.The additional state revenue and financial support could also prevent institutions of higher learning from faltering as was the case for six Illinois institutions who closed their doors in 2019-20. There are educational deserts in our state--places where colleges and universities are virtually nonexistent. More places around the state could fall into this category as institutions have already experienced formidable cuts and are bracing for future cuts to state funding in the coming years.

These cuts impact my students most. They are the ones who have already been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. They are the ones already combatting an opportunity and equity gap.

Read Keisha Rembert's Chicago Sun-Times Letter to the Editor, "Vote for the fair tax to give my college students a fighting chance to get ahead"

My students work hard and deserve to enter a workforce eager and ready to welcome them. The current job and financial landscape look grim for them and without significant changes, like the fair tax amendment offers, the prospect of entering a healthy job market is unlikely with current double-digit unemployment rates. Inability to secure employment means a continuation and expansion of the existing wealth gap.

My students know the perils and feel the effects of Illinois not paying its bills year after year. They have lived with inadequate access to childcare and grown up in schools forced to cut teachers and without proper resources. They deserve more.

The fair tax amendment is a step toward creating a more equitable Illinois. A chance to remove the undue burden my students have been saddled with for far too long. It means more access, more funding, more resources to move Illinois forward. A vote for the fair tax amendment gives my students a chance to realize their dreams.

My mother always told me 'life is not fair.' I hated to hear it and wondered why life couldn't be more fair. Her mantra is essentially what the state of Illinois has been living by with its current tax system. Now is the time to make it fair--it's possible.

Learn more about what the fair tax could mean for Illinois Higher Education here.

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Guest Blog: ILEA Equity Speaks, Richard J. Daley College

Ahead of the upcoming public release of Equity Plans from partners of the Illinois Equity in Attainment (ILEA), leaders at ILEA institution Richard J. Daley College shared highlights of two of their cross-departmental strategies to address identified equity gaps.

Read the full blog here:


Learn more about Daley College's Equity Plan, part of the public release of ILEA Equity Plans here.  For more about ILEA, visit here now.

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Guest Blog: ILEA Equity Speaks, Morton College

In conjunction with the public release of Equity Plans from partners of the Illinois Equity in Attainment (ILEA), leaders at ILEA institution Morton College shared their experience developing their plan.

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Learn more about the ILEA Equity Plans here.

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Guest Blog: ILEA Equity Speaks, Roosevelt University

In conjunction with the public release of Equity Plans from partners of the Illinois Equity in Attainment (ILEA), leaders Katrina Coakley, Associate Provost for Student Success and Jamar Orr, Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students, at ILEA institution Roosevelt University center the importance of Equity Plans in working for justice for underrepresented students amid the drastic and disproportionate impact of the coronavirus pandemic and widespread outcries for policing reform and social equality following the murder of George Floyd.

Read the full blog here:


Learn more about the ILEA Equity Plans here.

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