Do tests or high-school grades better determine whether a student is ready for college-level math and reading? For public universities and community colleges, increasingly the answer is both—or no tests at all, reporters learned during a seminar hosted by the Education Writers Association in Los Angeles last month.
Several states have undertaken a series of changes that allow students to prove they’re prepared for college courses by showcasing the work they’ve done in high school, such as grade point averages and scores on statewide standardized assessments they already take during high school. That’s a shift away from the current standard many colleges use—requiring incoming students to take placement tests to determine whether they need to be enrolled in developmental math or English.
This pivot away from relying on college-placement tests is significant because a growing body of research suggests students are less likely to complete their degrees if colleges enroll them in even one developmental, or remedial, class. Nationally, 42 percent of incoming college students are referred to remedial courses; the percentages are even higher for black, Latino, poor, and community-college students. Just one-tenth of students who start college in remedial courses ever earn a degree a report by Complete College America calculated in 2014. “It’s a high-school class for which you will pay college prices,” Acting U.S. Secretary of Education John King recently said at a gathering of mayors in Washington, D.C. “We know that students taking those remedial classes are dramatically less likely to finish.”
One explanation for the low success rate for these students is that developmental courses cost money but don’t count toward degree requirements. The remedial sequence can also be time-consuming: Community colleges often expect students to pass multiple remedial courses in succession before they’re able to enroll in their first credit-bearing class, leading to hundreds of thousands of students giving up on the process altogether each year. Roughly 1.7 million students each year require remediation, according to Complete College America, a nonprofit organization that advocates for the elimination of developmental courses.