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Report · November 2016

Determining College Readiness in California’s Community Colleges: A Survey of Assessment and Placement Policies

Hans Johnson, Marisol Cuellar Mejia, and Olga Rodriguez

This research was supported with funding from The Sutton Family Fund.

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. Placement has a profound effect on students’ college trajectory: a sizeable portion of developmental education students do not finish their developmental sequences, and most never earn a degree or transfer.

To improve student outcomes, campuses are changing how they determine who has direct access to transfer-level courses. This study presents results from a survey of assessment and placement policies at California’s community colleges in 2014-15 to inform ongoing efforts and provide a baseline of current policies. We find that:

  • Colleges vary in how they identify college-ready students. Colleges use different assessment tests and, even with the same test, apply different rules for the minimum scores that qualify as college ready. 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 on this test would be deemed college ready at only half of these colleges. This wide variation may be especially challenging for the 40 percent of students who eventually enroll in more than one community college campus. We also find that students of color, especially African American students, are more likely to attend colleges that set higher math cut scores and thus have more restrictive access to transfer-level math courses, potentially leading to broader inequities.
  • Colleges should be more consistent in the use of multiple measures. The state mandates that community colleges use measures in addition to assessment tests to inform placement-research shows that measures such as high school achievement data do a comparable or better job at predicting college success. While some colleges use multiple measures in a systematic way, others only use multiple measures if students request it or challenge 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.
  • Assessment and placement in English as a Second Language (ESL) needs more attention. Six percent of incoming community college students (about 30,000 students annually) enroll in ESL, and these students may be especially disadvantaged by current policies. Fewer colleges offer exemption opportunities and test preparation activities in ESL, compared to math and English. Additionally, our findings suggest that a lower proportion of colleges use 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.

State support has led to encouraging reforms. California’s community colleges are moving toward a common assessment, and research efforts are underway to develop recommendations for the use of multiple measures. In addition to assessment and placement reforms, many colleges are starting to redesign their developmental sequences to boost student completion. The PPIC report Preparing Students for Success in California’s Community Colleges examines this set of reforms and provides an overview of enrollment and outcomes in developmental education.

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.


Completion Equity Higher Education Workforce Needs