Regarding Prerequisite Policy in the California Community Colleges

Nancy Shulock, Director, Institute for Higher Education and Policy, CSU Sacramento

(Presented to the Board of Governors at their July 2010 meeting and reprinted with the author’s permission)

Let’s start with some big picture facts:

  • College attainment in the US is slipping—causing President Obama to call for the US to set the goal to once again lead the world in the percent of adults with college degrees
  • College attainment in CA is slipping faster than the rest of the country—younger age groups in CA are progressively less well educated and our rank among states in percentage of the working age population with a college degree has slipped from 3rd (ages 65 and older) to 31st (ages 25-34)
  • A huge reason for low national college attainment is that while enrollment is high, completion rates are low—across all sectors, but especially in community colleges
  • A huge reason that college completion rates are low is that most students begin needing remediation but never transition successfully to college level work, let alone to college completion
  • A major reason students often never get through remedial education is that effective remedial education practices have not yet been implemented on a large scale

Now some facts about the current process that is under discussion:

  • The vast majority of students entering California’s community colleges are not prepared for college level work
  • The current system for establishing prerequisites through statistical validation is rarely used due to its complexity and the difficulty of meeting established statistical criteria; therefore, few prerequisites are in place
  • With few prerequisites, students have open access to college-level courses whether or not they can read or write at college level or perform basic mathematics
  • Many of those students fail or drop the courses and many succeed in the courses—earning a C or better
  • We don’t and can’t know the relative percentages of under-prepared students who succeed or fail in college-level courses because assessment isn’t strictly required and assessment scores are not recorded in the MIS system—so we don’t know which students in the college-level courses were under-prepared

What we have are two diametrically opposed belief systems and, while each side can call the other “racist,” I don’t believe it sheds any light on their respective positions to do so.

  • One side genuinely believes that setting prerequisites will harm under-represented minority students by consigning them to basic skills sequences from which they will not emerge. They cite data showing that substantial numbers of under-prepared students pass transfer-level courses without first completing reading, writing, and/or math remediation as evidence that we direct too many students to basic skills courses.
  • The other side genuinely believes that failing to set prerequisites will harm underrepresented minority students by allowing them to enroll in classes for which they are not prepared to succeed. They cite data showing that substantial numbers of under-prepared students fail to successfully complete transfer-level courses and cite anecdotal evidence of faculty acknowledging the need to lower academic standards to accommodate students in their classes who lack fundamental skills in reading, writing, and/or math.

This issue cannot be resolved on the basis of available data:

  • We lack student-level data on high school transcripts and college assessment results to know who is, and who is not, judged to be proficient when they enroll in transfer-level classes, so we cannot compare the performance of students with equal preparation levels who take a transfer-level course with or without having become proficient.
  • We lack measures of quality/standards for college-level classes so we cannot judge whether under-prepared students pass those courses because they mastered college-level work without completing basic skills or because the course could be successfully completed without, for example, having to read or write at college level.
  • We lack measures of quality/standards for remedial courses, so if data show that students are not helped by remediation, we don’t know whether it is because they should not be directed to remediation or because the remedial courses are not of sufficient quality.

But we can learn from what leading-edge states are doing to increase the success of under-prepared students for whom traditional remedial sequences have not proven effective. A review of developmental education policy reforms reveals the following trends1:

  1. To minimize the time that students spend in remedial coursework by replacing long sequences of semester-long courses with options that include:
    • modular courses with open entry/open exit as students’ competencies dictate
    • contextualized remedial courses whereby students learn basic skills in the context of substantive content, sometimes in paired courses
    • supplemental remedial instruction where students with limited deficiencies enroll in college-level courses and receive targeted assistance with needed basic skills
  2. To achieve a balance between permissiveness and restrictiveness with respect to access to college-level courses by under-prepared students by:
    • allowing students into college-level courses concurrent with their remedial enrollments as long as the course does not require skills related to those that need remediation (the key being reading—states generally do not allow students who are not proficient in reading to take college-level courses)
    • requiring students to begin and complete remediation early by setting limits, for example, on the number of credits students may earn before completing remediation
  3. To use content review to support the overall reform goal of ensuring that students spend only the minimal time needed in remedial education by:
    • examining and aligning the content of college-level and remedial courses
    • using that content review as the basis for placing or directing students into appropriate courses

Drawing on these lessons, I am supportive of the proposed policy change to allow for content review as a basis for colleges to set prerequisites.

  • It aligns with the best thinking on how to simultaneously improve remedial instruction while taking a balanced approach to the prerequisite issue
  • It is a major step towards improving basic skills—by encouraging colleges to be clear on the skills and competencies that students need in college level courses and designing basic skills courses accordingly
  • It lays the foundation for more diagnostic use of assessments so that students can be directed only to those basic skills courses or modules or contextualized courses that they need—shortening the time they spend in remediation
  • It lays the foundation for creating a set of clear college readiness standards that can communicate to K-12 what will be expected of students who enter the community colleges
  • It replaces problematic statistical processes with purposeful alignment of course content, in line with what the leading reform states are doing and consistent with a new report by two leading national policy centers on improving college readiness by aligning competency expectations and assessing proficiencies.2

An expert on state developmental education policy reported that no other state has such a prescriptive policy for what institutions have to do or cannot do to try to improve the basic skills of under-prepared students and none has the kind of “onerous” statistical validation that California has.3 He confirmed that leading states, such as Texas, Virginia, Tennessee, and North Carolina, are using content review as the driving force in reforming the delivery of developmental education to improve outcomes for under-prepared students.

With more explicit reference to prerequisites, another leading expert summarized the new directions as follows4:

The most thoughtful states are trying to strike a delicate balance on assessment and placement policy. On one hand, policies that are too permissive allow students to enroll in college-credit courses without adequate preparation or support, setting up both the student and the institution for failure. On the other hand, overly restrictive policies may require students who have a reasonable chance of succeeding without intervention, such as those who fall just below the established cut score for placement into remediation, to enroll in developmental education anyway….Effective state assessment and placement policies will strike a balance between restrictive and permissive rules. (Collins, p.9)

The proposal to allow content review reflects these best efforts by putting the focus on course content and letting faculty at the colleges determine what mix of separate basic skills courses, modular courses, integrated courses, etc. will help students acquire the competencies they need in the shortest possible time.

1 Education Commission of the States, Getting Past Go: Rebuilding the Remedial Education Bridge to College Success, May, 2010, as supplemented by personal communication with lead author Bruce Vandal, July 2, 2010.

2 Beyond the Rhetoric: Improving college readiness through coherent state policy. National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and Southern Regional Education Board, June 2010.

3 Bruce Vandal, Education Commission of the States, personal communication, July 2, 2010.

4 Michael Lawrence Collins, Setting Up Success in Developmental Education: How State Policy Can Help Community Colleges Improve Student Success Outcomes. Boston: Jobs for the Future, June 2009.

The articles published in the Rostrum do not necessarily represent the adopted positions of the academic senate. For adopted positions and recommendations, please browse this website.