Assessment Group Seeks Feedback on College-Readiness Definition

By Catherine Gewertz — July 12, 2012 6 min read
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What does it mean to be college-ready?

That’s a question that’s driving one of the biggest projects in education right now: the development of assessments for the Common Core State Standards. And as we reported to you last month, it’s a question that’s brought together K-12 and higher education in new ways. They’re literally sitting around the same table, figuring out a shared idea of what it means for a student to be ready to succeed in college.

A case in point is the work of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, one of two groups of states that are working with $360 million in federal Race to the Top money to design the tests and other resources to support the standards. At a recent meeting, PARCC was trying to finalize a draft policy for determining college readiness based on the test, but had to take more time to refine it after a number of questions were raised at the governing-board meeting. Ditto for a set of “performance-level descriptors,” the characterizations of student achievement at given cut scores for each level of performance on the test.

After a few more weeks of conversation and meetings of PARCC’s K-12 and higher ed leaders, the consortium has completed its drafts of the college-readiness-determination policy and the performance-level descriptors. They’re available here, along with some explanation from PARCC.

Mary Ann Snider, a top Rhode Island department of education official who serves as that state’s K-12 lead in PARCC, told me that each group met separately, then got together to discuss a “more precise” definition of college readiness. “We’re all committed to reducing the number of students who need remediation before going into credit-bearing, entry-level work in English/language arts and math,” she told me on the phone yesterday.

The drafts will be subject to revision based on this next round of public feedback, which runs through Sept. 21 (feedback responses can be submitted here). But even at this stage of the game, the draft documents tell us interesting things about what the state and higher-ed members of the consortium are thinking about college readiness.

Some things to note as you take a look at the two draft documents:

Characterizing achievement. PARCC has advanced the idea of “command” to describe students’ accomplishments at the five levels of the test. Performing at the highest level would show “a superior command” of the math and English/language arts content and skills, and scoring in the fourth tier would show a “solid command.” Tier three shows a “partial command,” with level two a “limited command,” and level one a “very limited command.”

Signals about preparedness and support. PARCC describes 11th graders as “academically well prepared to engage successfully in entry-level, credit-bearing courses” in math and English/language arts if they score at the highest of five levels on the test. Students in 9th and 10th grade would be “academically well prepared to engage successfully in further studies.” This grade band introduces the idea, also, of being “on-track to become academically prepared” for successful work in those entry-level, credit-bearing courses. The “on-track” language is absent for students in grades 3-8: It says only that they are “academically well prepared to engage successfully in further studies” in those content areas. “You wouldn’t want to make a statement about being on-track to college readiness when you’re 9,” Snider told me.

At level four, the language shifts from “academically well prepared” to “academically prepared.” At level three, it changes again, this time saying that students “will likely need academic support” to be prepared for those college courses, or, at lower grade levels, to engage in further studies in those content areas. Level two comes with a stronger warning: Students “will need academic support.” At level one, it says they “will need extensive academic support.”

Earlier drafts of the policy used the phrase “likely to succeed” instead of “academically well prepared.” Debate around the table had raised the point that likeliness to succeed depended on a host of factors beyond academics.

Jeff Nellhaus, PARCC’s director of assessment, told me yesterday that the consortium wants to make sure that its tests are making claims only about students’ academic preparedness. And introductory language in the draft takes pains on this point, saying that academic knowledge and skills are “necessary but not sufficient” for college success, so a PARCC college-ready determination “can only provide an estimate” of a student’s chance of success in such coursework.

Exemption cutoff. The PARCC draft says that 11th grade students who score at the fourth and fifth performance levels are exempt from having to take placement tests that are used to decide whether they can skip remedial courses and go right into certain entry-level, credit-bearing classes. Conversation about the earlier draft showed some misgivings about possible confusion over the meaning of scoring at level three. Those who advocated it pointed out that it has value for its potential as an early signal that students need more support. This draft tackles both questions, drawing attention to students scoring at level three and below, and explicitly saying that they are “not exempt” from taking college-placement tests to determine their eligibility for entry-level, credit-bearing coursework.

Which college courses? The draft spells out which kinds of courses students are ready for. If they score at the fourth or fifth levels, they can enroll, without remediation, in “College English Composition or Literature, or introductory courses requiring college-level reading in a range of disciplines, such as history and the social sciences.” On the math side, they can enroll directly in college algebra or introductory statistics.

What should students be able to do? At each level, the draft lays out the kinds of general skills students should be able to demonstrate in each content area. PARCC will be developing more specific subject- and grade-level descriptions of these expectations.

Which tests? PARCC hasn’t yet decided which of its suite of tests will be used to determine college readiness. It could be based on the terminal test in each subject area (11th grade English/language arts, and Algebra 2/Integrated Math 3). It could, instead, be based on those as well as the end-of-year ELA exams in 9th and 10th grades, and the end-of-course exams in math, whenever students take those.

What the college-ready determination is pegged to. The PARCC draft says that at least 75 percent of the students scoring at the fourth and fifth levels should earn Cs or better in the specified entry-level, credit-bearing courses they were able to enroll in by scoring at those levels. Earlier rounds of conversation had floated a 67 percent/B grade combination. But K-12 and higher ed leaders agreed that this didn’t send the right signal.

Snider told me that it “might seem contradictory” that students deemed college-ready could be likely to earn as low as a C in college coursework. “A grade of C is not highly successful. We want students to get As and Bs at the college level,” she said. But on the other hand, she noted, the college-ready push is fueled by the desire to see students earn college credit, and they do so by earning Cs or better.

A lot of states are pursuing the college-completion agenda, Mike Krause, the director of academic affairs at the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, and the higher ed lead for his state in PARCC, told me. “In states that are completion-driven, the message is, ‘We want you to complete,’ and you can’t caveat that by saying that you have to get Bs in all your courses. At the end of the day, we want those students to complete college.”

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