Assessment Group Chooses Tests for College Readiness in Math

By Catherine Gewertz — December 13, 2012 3 min read
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The decision about whether students are “college-ready” in mathematics will be based only on the exams students take at the end of a math sequence, rather than on a combination of results from all the courses in the sequence, a state assessment group decided today.

The decision by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for Colleges and Careers, or PARCC, approved at its quarterly governing-board meeting here in Washington, completes a discussion of several ways to arrive at the college-readiness determination for math students.

Meeting jointly, K-12 and higher education representatives of the consortium’s 23 member states decided to base the college-readiness decision on whether a student scores high enough on the culminating tests for one of the two math sequences that the group envisions: Algebra 1-Geometry-Algebra 2, or an “integrated” approach whose courses are referred to as Math 1, 2, and 3.

According to an earlier decision, students in PARCC states will have to score high enough to reach level 4 of a 5-level test in order to be deemed college-ready, which means they can skip remedial courses in math or English/language arts and enroll in entry-level, credit-bearing classes. The cutoff scores for each level of the test are, however, yet to be determined.

What hadn’t been decided yet—until today—is on which of PARCC’s math tests the college-readiness determination would rest. A PARCC K-12/higher education working group that explored the issue recommended to the full consortium that it base the college-readiness determination on test scores from all three of the courses in each sequence. The tests at each grade level would have a combination of multiple-choice, short-answer, and performance tasks. The terminal exam in each sequence would have two additional performance tasks.

Thomas Bullock, who coordinates higher education engagement with PARCC on behalf of the District of Columbia, told the full consortium that while Algebra 2 is considered by many to be central to success in college, many students do not take it. Combining the results of all three years’ exams would enable a college-readiness determination to be based on “multiple data points,” said Bullock, an assistant professor of math at the University of the District of Columbia.

Some consortium members expressed concerns about basing a college-readiness determination in part on courses taken two or three years before college enrollment. Matt Gianneschi, Colorado’s deputy executive director of higher education, said he thought it would be fairer to base a college-readiness decision on more recent exam scores. He likened the factoring-in of older test scores to basing a college-admission decision on an SAT score from 9th grade.

Richard Freeland, Massachusetts’ commissioner of higher education, expressed reservations about hanging a college-readiness determination on Algebra 2 or Math 3, noting that many students who don’t plan to major in science, technology, engineering, or math don’t feel they need such a high level of math in high school. Recent discussion in Massachusetts about reducing remediation, he said, led to questions about whether college readiness in math should have the same meaning for every student.

But James Wright, the director of assessment for the Ohio education department, cautioned against going down that road. It’s a “dangerous slope to differentiate” among different types or levels of college readiness in math, he said, when the aim is to assess students against all the Common Core State Standards in math. He noted, however, that the group’s math tests will not gauge mastery of the so-called “plus standards,” which are designed for students aiming to do take more advanced-math courses in college.

After discussing the matter, the higher ed and K-12 members of the consortium voted to base its college-readiness decision only on the terminal exams for each sequence.

Further down the road, if study suggests that there could be value in basing the college-readiness determination on a combination of test results from all three courses in each sequence, that question would be opened up again for reconsideration, the group decided.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.