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

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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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