The United States is facing increasingly inadequate college attainment levels and the threat of losing competitive standing on the global stage. The situation is especially dire in California where younger age groups are progressively less well educated and its rank among states in the percentage of adults with college degrees has slipped from third (ages 65 and older) to thirty-first (ages 25-34). A major reason for low college attainment, in California and nationally, is that while enrollment rates are generally high, completion rates are low – across all sectors but especially in community colleges. And a major factor in low completion rates is a lack of college readiness among new college students across broad sectors of American public higher education. In community colleges, the great majority of students enter under-prepared for college-level study – some seriously under-prepared. Large percentages of these students never get through remedial education, let alone to college completion. Despite major reform efforts and emerging models, it is apparent that effective remedial instruction has not yet been implemented on a large scale.
The issue at hand is how best to serve the growing numbers of entering students in California’s community colleges who are not prepared for college-level work. Should they be required to take remedial coursework right away or at all? What courses should they be allowed to take before they have completed remedial work? What kind of remedial instruction is most effective? Recently, the Academic Senate of the California Community Colleges (ASCCC) passed a resolution calling for the modification of the process for establishing prerequisites for student entry into college-level courses. The current system for establishing prerequisites is a complex statistical validation for each pair of courses (the college course and the proposed prerequisite course) to demonstrate with historical data that the prerequisite course increases a student’s chances of passing the college course. This process is rarely used due to its complexity and the difficulty of meeting established statistical criteria. Therefore, few prerequisites are in place. With few prerequisites, students have open access to college-level courses whether or not they can read or write at college level or perform basic mathematics. Some under-prepared students pass those courses and some fail or drop them. Unfortunately, because assessment isn’t strictly required and assessment scores are not recorded in the systemwide data system, we cannot determine the numbers of under-prepared students who enroll in college-level courses or their rates of success or failure in those courses.
The ASCCC proposal is to allow colleges to use “content review” instead of statistical validation. With content review, faculty experts in their fields determine the reading, writing, and/or math competencies that students need to succeed in a given college-level course in another discipline, (e.g., History, Economics), determine the courses (most likely basic skills courses) that provide those competencies, and set course prerequisites accordingly.
The proposal is controversial, with two diametrically opposed sets of beliefs. One side believes that setting prerequisites will harm under-represented minority students by consigning them to basic skills sequences from which they will not emerge. They cite data showing that substantial numbers of under-prepared students pass transfer-level courses without first completing reading, writing, and/or math remediation as evidence that we direct too many students to basic skills courses. The other side believes that failing to set prerequisites will harm under-represented minority students by allowing them to enroll in classes for which they are not prepared to succeed. They cite data showing that substantial numbers of under-prepared students fail to successfully complete transfer-level courses and cite anecdotal evidence of faculty acknowledging the need to lower academic standards to accommodate students in their classes who lack fundamental skills in reading, writing, and/or math.
This issue cannot be resolved on the basis of available data. We lack student-level data on high school transcripts and college assessment results to know who is, and is not, judged to be proficient when they enroll in transfer-level classes. Without this data, we cannot compare the performance of students with equal preparation levels who take a transfer-level course with or without having become proficient. We also lack measures of quality or standards for college-level classes, so we cannot know whether under-prepared students pass those courses because they mastered college-level work without completing basic skills or because the course could be successfully completed without, for example, having to read or write at college level. Additionally, we lack measures of quality or standards for remedial courses. If data show that students are not helped by remediation, we don’t know whether it is because they should not be directed to remediation or because the remedial courses are not of sufficient quality.