College & Workforce Readiness

Universities in Six States Agree to Smarter Balanced Definition of ‘College Ready’

By Catherine Gewertz — April 15, 2015 5 min read
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Nearly 200 colleges and universities in six states have agreed to let students skip remedial coursework if they reach the college-readiness score on the 2015 Smarter Balanced assessment.

Wednesday’s announcement marks a major development in the consortium’s bid to convince higher education to accept the “college-ready” cut score on its 11th grade test for course-placement purposes.Until this week, it had only the state college and university systems in two states signed on. Now that list has grown to 197 campuses in six states. Here’s how it breaks down:

101 in California, including all 23 campuses of California State University and 78 of the state's 112 community colleges; 49 in Washington state, all 40 of its two- and four-year colleges and nine independent colleges and universities; 24 in Oregon, all public colleges and universities; 10 in Hawaii, all public colleges and universities; 7 in Delaware, all six of its public colleges and universities and one independent university; and 6 in South Dakota, all public colleges and universities.

“This is a major endorsement of the standards themselves and of the assessment as an accuate measure of those standards,” said Jacqueline King, the director of higher education collaboration for Smarter Balanced.

PARCC has enlisted similar pledges so far from two colleges in Colorado and from the community colleges in Illinois. Students in 10 states and the District of Columbia are taking the PARCC tests this year; students in 18 states are taking Smarter Balanced.

The two state consortia, which used $360 million in federal funds to design tests for the common core, have both been working hard to gain higher education’s acceptance of their college-readiness scores in deciding whether students can skip remedial classes and enroll in entry-level, credit-bearing courses. (They are not intended to be used for admissions.)

How widespread that acceptance becomes is a pivotal question with a potentially huge impact. Large-scale acceptance of the tests’ college-readiness cut scores would suggest that colleges and universities agree with the consortia’s most central assumption: that scoring at those levels means that a student is ready for credit-bearing college work.

A statement issued by Delaware Secretary of Education Mark Murphy reflects that shift. The decisions of his state’s colleges and universities “show that they believe the common core standads are rigorous and that the Smarter Balanced assessments provide a good measure of college readiness,” he said.

Offering ‘Concrete Benefits’

Higher education’s acceptance of consortium scores could also make inroads into the high college-remediation rates that cost students time and money, and often undermine their ability to complete baccalaureate degrees.

“Oregon’s higher education course-placement agreements are a strong step forward in high school to college alignment, signaling to high school students that their hard work on the Smarter Balanced assessments and rigorous coursework in the 12th grade provide concrete benefits once they get to campus,” Ben Cannon, the executive director of the state’s higher education coordinating commission, said in a statement.

Smarter Balanced’s announcement means that 197 campuses—overwhelmingly, public colleges and universities, including some flagship campuses—will allow students to sign up for credit-bearing courses without any remedial classes if they score a 4 on the consortium’s four-level test. (The PARCC test has five levels, with 4 and above signifying college readiness.)

Many of the campuses are adding the SBAC test to the list of options students have for demonstrating their readiness for credit-bearing coursework. Some will retain the use of their current placement tests, and allow students to use SBAC scores instead. Some also allow students to use a given score on the ACT or SAT for course placement decisions, King said.

At the community college level, campuses will likely keep using placement tests such as Accuplacer, but will now also accept Smarter Balanced scores.

The campuses vary in how they will approach students who score a 3 on the Smarter Balanced assessment. Many will require students at that level to supply additional evidence of ongoing study, such as coursework taken during the senior year.

Better Use of Senior Year?

Both consortia are hoping that a widespread higher-education embrace of their college-readiness scores will produce a key benefit for students: being able to better plan and use their senior year. The thinking goes like this: If students fall short of the college-readiness level on the 11th grade consortium test, they can take the necessary coursework to meet muster during 12th grade. Those whose 11th grade scores show they’re ready for more challenging work can opt for higher-level classes, Advanced Placement courses, or dual-enrollment programs.

Increasingly, states are designing “transition courses” to meet that need. California originated the idea many years ago with its Early Assessment Program. Delaware, Hawaii, Nevada, South Dakota, Washington state, and West Virginia are also working on various approaches to 12th grade transition courses. Some are using adapted versions of transition courses designed by the Southern Regional Education Board.

The decision to use consortium test scores can be a tricky one, both at the college level and in high school. The higher education systems in West Virginia, for instance, agreed last fall to use Smarter Balanced scores for course placement. But they’re still working out the details, according to King.

Using 11th grade Smarter Balanced test results to guide students into 12th grade courses, for instance, is complicated by a timing question: Smarter Balanced results won’t be available until long after many high schools schedule students’ senior-year courses. One answer could be to use the Compass placement test to shape students’ senior year, but that is still under discussion, King said.

Additionally, there’s the question of how colleges, when making course-placement decisions, should sort out any discrepancies between the way students score on Compass and on Smarter Balanced. That’s still being discussed, too.

Aligning K-12 and higher education has long been a goal in the education world, but making it happen is fraught with difficulty. Stay tuned as states try to work out these issues.

Photo: The campus of Washington State University in Spokane, Wash. --Cori Medeiros/Washington State University/AP-File

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