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Blog Post · April 3, 2018

Testimony: Reforming Key Policies at the Community Colleges

Olga Rodriguez, research fellow at the PPIC Higher Education Center, testified before the Assembly Higher Education Committee in Sacramento today (April 3, 2018). Here are her prepared remarks:

Thank you for the opportunity to testify this afternoon. My name is Olga Rodriguez and I am a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. PPIC is a nonpartisan policy research organization and does not take positions on legislation. My comments are based on research we have conducted at PPIC on California’s community colleges.

Every year, California’s community colleges identify hundreds of thousands of students as not ready for transfer-level courses in math and English. Since these courses are required to transfer to a four-year college, students deemed underprepared are placed in developmental (also known as remedial or basic skills) courses to prepare for college work. These placement decisions have profound effects: our study finds that 80% of entering students take at least one developmental course in math, English, or both, and very few of those students complete a college-level math or English course, or transfer to a four-year college after six years.

Despite the critical role of assessment and placement, historically there has been little clarity about how colleges across the state assess and place students into math, English, and English as a Second Language (ESL) sequences. The overwhelming majority of colleges do not have this information publicly available in their college catalog or on their website. To help fill this information gap, in spring 2016 we surveyed all 113 community colleges in the state; 82 of the colleges participated in the survey. They reported on the policies used to assess and place students into transfer-level math and English as well as the highest level of ESL during the 2014–15 academic year. The broad goal of the survey was to provide policymakers and practitioners with a descriptive landscape to improve understanding of the policies used across the state to assess and place students into math, English, and ESL courses. These results provide an important baseline prior to the implementation of assessment and placement reforms. I describe our findings below.

  • First, community colleges varied in how they identified college-ready students. We find that the use of assessment tests was widespread; 100% of colleges reported using assessment tests for math, English, and ESL placement. However, there was variation in the types of tests used and how they were used. For example, while more than half of colleges reported using the Accuplacer test to assess college readiness in math, cut scores ranged from 25 to 96 out of 120. A student with a score of 58 (the median score used by colleges) would be deemed college ready at half of these colleges, but not at the other half. The lack of consistency means that access to college courses—credit-bearing courses that students need in order to transfer to four-year colleges—is determined not only by students’ performance on the test, but also by the policies at the college where they enroll. This wide variation may be especially challenging for the 40% of students who eventually enroll in more than one community college campus, as they could be deemed college ready at one college but referred to remediation in another. These policies end up undermining opportunities to transfer between campuses and provide mixed signals about what it means to be ready for college-level courses. Furthermore, assessment and placement practices have implications for equity. Students of color are more likely to attend colleges that set higher math cutoff scores, which means these students have less access to the math classes they need to advance.
  • Second, the use of multiple measures was sparse and unsystematic. In California, the use of other measures in addition to placement exams (known as multiple measures) is mandated by law. In fact, research shows that measures such as high school achievement data do a comparable or better job at predicting college success compared to assessment tests. But while assessment tests were standard practice, there was substantial variation in the types of other measures used across colleges and across subjects. Additional measures included high school GPA, grades in prior English and math coursework, results from the Early Assessment Program (EAP), and counselor or instructor recommendations, among others. Overall, we find that 61% of colleges used grade in last math course, and 40% used grade in last English course; but only about one-third of colleges used high school GPA for placement into math and English courses. Even fewer colleges used these measures for ESL placement (8–12%). In addition, while some colleges used multiple measures in a systematic way for all students, up to 30% of colleges only used multiple measures if students requested it or challenged their placement. Uneven implementation of multiple measures may aggravate inequities if students with cultural and social capital are more likely to take advantage of these policies.
  • Third, assessment and placement in ESL needs more attention. Each year, about 30,000 students enroll in ESL, and these students may be especially disadvantaged by current policies. Compared to English and math, in ESL, fewer colleges offered exemption opportunities and test preparation activities. Additionally, our findings suggest that a lower proportion of colleges used high school achievement data for ESL placement, indicating that English Learners may not be benefitting from one of the most promising methods of improving placement accuracy.
  • Finally, ongoing reforms aim to promote more consistent and accurate placement policies. With the support of the governor, the legislature, and the system office, a significant amount of resources have been devoted to improving assessment and placement at community colleges. The passage of Assembly Bill 705 will help address this issue by mandating that all colleges use high school achievement data for the assessment and placement of all students. Still, if colleges have the autonomy to set their own rules for placement, and if colleges do not fully inform students of their placement rules, this will be a cause for concern as uneven access to transfer-level courses has significant implications for student success.

In sum, assessment and placement policies should help students reach their academic goals—not stand in the way of those goals. As colleges work to enhance the efficacy of developmental education, implementing evidence-based practices that accurately assess students’ college readiness will be critical. A more equitable and efficient system for assessment and placement is a vital step in helping all students achieve their academic goals.


Access assessment California Community Colleges developmental education Equity Higher Education placement remedial education