Testing Group Wrestles With ‘College Readiness’ Meaning

By Catherine Gewertz — June 22, 2012 6 min read
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The unprecedented work to design assessment systems for the Common Core State Standards is bringing together K-12 and higher education in new ways. But it is also forcing new and sometimes uncomfortable discussions about the heart and soul of the enterprise: the meaning of college readiness.

Both the collaboration and the tensions were on display here recently as K-12 and collegiate leaders from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, one of the two federally funded state assessment consortia, met to discuss a draft definition of college readiness in mathematics and English/language arts that would undergird the performance levels on its tests in 2014-15.

At issue was the approval of a draft statement to circulate for further input. But three hours of discussion by the three dozen K-12 and higher education representatives from 18 states couldn’t produce the necessary consensus, so the statement will undergo further revision and a vote before its release. A revised draft was released for public comment July 12.

The draft discussed at the June 20 meeting would deem “college ready” students who scored at “Level 4” or above on a five-level test. Level 4 would be pegged to the “proficient” level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and be set so that 75 percent of students who reached that level would earn Cs in entry-level, credit-bearing courses in English composition and literature, or college algebra and introductory statistics.

For the 11th grade test, scoring at Level 5 would mean that students are “very likely to succeed” in those courses, and scoring a 4 would mean they are “likely to succeed,” according to the draft statement. Those who score 3’s “may succeed,” while 2’s are “unlikely to succeed and 1’s “very unlikely” to do so.

On the tests in grades 3-8, the draft describes those who score at Level 5 as “very well prepared to engage successfully in further study,” while a 4 means they are “well prepared,” a 3 means students “may need some targeted support,” a 2 means they “will likely need targeted support,” and a 1 means they “will likely need intensive intervention.”

The Meaning of C

As soon as those guidelines were unveiled, the questions and disagreements began.

Mitchell D. Chester, the commissioner of education in Massachusetts and the chairman of PARCC’s governing board, asked whether the likelihood of earning a C was a good proxy for college success.

“When I went to college, a C was not good. Has the world changed since then?” Mr. Chester said, prompting chuckles around the room.

Ron Jackson, the commissioner of Georgia’s system of technical colleges and a member of PARCC’s college-readiness advisory group, said that formula figured large in the group’s discussions.

Talks had focused on setting the Level 4 cutoff score so that 67 percent of students reaching it would earn B’s in entry-level, credit-bearing college courses. That 67 percent was revised to 75 percent, and the B changed to a C. That happened because higher education representatives agreed that a C is a passing grade, Mr. Jackson said, and because it would be a “tough sell” to persuade state legislators and others—who will decide whether to use the PARCC results to let students skip remedial college work—that students aren’t college-ready unless they are likely to earn Bs in entry-level, credit-bearing courses.

Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington-based group that manages PARCC, asked educators whether the proposed language would “raise the bar,” essentially making it tougher for students to get into credit-bearing courses. Answers suggested that at least in some states, it would.

Debra Stuart, a vice chancellor with the Oklahoma regents for higher education, said that currently about half the students who pass state college-placement tests earn Cs in entry-level courses. David Crook, a dean for research and assessment at the City University of New York, said that about 60 percent of the students who pass the New York regents exams in high school with a “college ready” score of 75 earn Cs or better in CUNY entry-level English/language arts courses.

Much of the debate centered on the proposed language to describe students’ level of mastery.

Some higher education representatives, for instance, questioned the description of high-scoring high school students as “very likely to succeed.” They noted that many factors come into play for college success that won’t be gauged by the PARCC assessment, such as persistence and motivation. PARCC officials acknowledged as much, including in the draft language phrasing that says the tests seek to gauge only the academic skills necessary for college.

Mr. Jackson and some other higher education representatives suggested that the “well prepared” language from the grade 3-8 description be extended to high school, so students scoring at Level 4 would be deemed “very well prepared” for entry-level, credit-bearing courses.

Others favored the success-oriented language, saying it gives a clearer signal that preparation would actually translate into good performance. “Those nuances are important,” said Deborah Grossman-Garber, the assistant commissioner for planning and policy at the Rhode Island board of governors for higher education.

One revision that was floated before the group, focusing on the potential need for intervention or supports for students who scored 3 or below, drew a frustrated response from some board members.

Tony Bennett, the commissioner of education in Indiana, questioned why the test had to have five scoring levels if Level 3 would invite remediation in high school or college. He pushed for four levels, with a clear “college ready” determination at Level 4.

“Just tell the truth,” said Bernard J. Sadusky, Maryland’s interim superintendent of schools. “Are you likely to succeed?”

Some saw value in a Level 3 category for its potential to describe students’ college readiness with “a nuanced approach,” instead of “either black or white,” as Jeffrey Nellhaus, who oversees PARCC assessment development, said.

Others said a Level 3 score could help trigger interventions for students on the cusp of being college-ready and could help colleges better evaluate what students need when they enter.

Deborah Gist, Rhode Island’s commissioner of education, said she could envision community colleges sitting down with entering students who had scored a 3 and evaluating their broader records, including their grade point averages, to decide course placement and appropriate supports.

Students who score a 3 in 11th grade could also be good candidates for senior-year coursework to boost their skills, said Mr. Jackson.

Some participants in the meeting found the meaning of a Level 3 score problematic to explain to lawmakers and others in their home states.

“In most people’s minds, college readiness is either you are or you aren’t,” said Stan W. Heffner, Ohio’s superintendent of schools. If a Level 3 score means students are ready for college with appropriate supports, that “wiggle room” could be confusing, he said.

Other Issues

Some higher education representatives also took issue with the specific courses named in the proposed description. Instead of connoting the chance of success in English composition and literature, they would prefer that a college-ready score predict success in composition and a wide range of courses in various disciplines that demand reading skill, Mr. Jackson said.


Another part of the draft came in for criticism, too. It proposed that the college-ready determination be honored for 16 months, to accommodate students who don’t go directly into college, or who don’t take math or English their senior year in high school. But Mr. Jackson said he and his colleagues oppose that, because they have found that students who are continuously enrolled in math and English through their senior year do better in their college courses.

Despite the tensions and disagreements in the debate about the meaning of college readiness, the leaders around the table agreed that the conversation is important.

“No matter what the resolution on this is, this is a great signal of joint communications,” said Janet Barresi, Oklahoma’s schools chief.

“How powerful to have higher ed. and K-12 sitting together on this,” Massachusetts’ Mr. Chester said. “That is huge.”

A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2012 edition of Education Week as Common-Core Assessment Consortium Ponders Meaning of ‘College Readiness’


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