Education Policy

California Colleges Dumping Test Scores, Adopting GPA to Define College Readiness

Some state legislators were listening last year when a report from Education Northwest encouraged the use of grade point averages and school work in helping to determine how "college-ready" prospective students were. Traditionally, schools have used placement tests such as the SAT or ACT to decide whether a student needed to attend non-credit remedial classes before they could move into credit-bearing courses. Those test-based measures, however, have held some students back from ever obtaining their degrees.

Now a new law in California has locked the use of GPA into place, at least for community colleges. Assembly Bill 705 requires those schools to use high school performance in course placement decisions. The new bill authorizes the state's Board of Governors, which sets community college policy, to establish regulations for achieving two goals: 1) to maximize "the probability that a student will enter and complete transfer-level coursework in English and mathematics within a one-year timeframe"; and 2) to ensure that a student enrolled in English-as-a-second-language (ESL) instruction "will enter and complete degree and transfer requirements in English within a timeframe of three years."

The change could be massive. The state's community colleges identify more than three-quarters of its 2.1 million students as underprepared; most are directed into remedial classes. As a result, those students are more likely to drop out of college. Those who remain take longer to finish their degrees and incur more debt by extending the duration of their college schooling.

However, AB 705 doesn't dictate specific placement rules or criteria. Its purpose, according to the Campaign for College Opportunity, is to set standards that colleges must use in their local decision-making. These standards are designed to ensure that placement decisions maximize a student's likelihood of completing math and English milestones.

According to the text of the law, the use of placement tests for deciding the early fate of a student tends to "underplace" them even when there's other evidence that those students could have succeeded in college-level courses. "The reliance of test scores as the determinant factor for high-stakes placement decisions runs contrary to testing industry norms," the legislation noted. "Research shows that a student's high school performance is a much stronger predictor of success in transfer-level courses than standardized placement tests."

California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley applauded the mandate. In a prepared statement, he called the new law "a win-win for our students, colleges and the state's taxpayers." Presently, he said, "too many of our students are stuck in courses that do not count toward their educational goals and cost them valuable time and money. I applaud the governor for signing this bill that establishes a stronger assessment process and will ultimately lead to a dramatic improvement in our student completion rates. This is an important milestone in the drive to improve student success and the first of several steps our system is taking to put students at the center of all policy discussions because they come with different circumstances and we need to be able to adapt to meet their needs."

About the Author

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.