The Meaning of “College Readiness”

What does it mean to be “college ready?”  This is the question that became the center of debate at the June meeting of leaders from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), one of the consortia tasked with creating assessment systems for the new Common Core.  The meeting was held to discuss a draft definition of college readiness in mathematics and English Language Arts that would form the basis for the assessments.

Three hours of discussion by three dozen K-12 and higher education representatives from 18 states didn’t provide the necessary consensus for approving the definition, so the statement will undergo further revision and a vote before its release.

The draft discussed at the meeting would deem students “college ready” if they score at “Level 4” or above on a five-level test.  Level 4 would pegged to the “proficient” level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and be set so that 75% 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 3s “may succeed,” while 2s are “unlikely to succeed and 1s “very unlikely” to do so.

As soon as these guidelines were unveiled, a heated debate began.  Some attendees questioned whether the likelihood of earning a C was a good proxy for college success.  Before this meeting, the discussions had been around Level 4 being set for 67% of students would earn B’s in college-level courses; this changed because higher education representatives agreed that a C is a passing grade.

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

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.

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.”

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