Maybe we need harder tests. Or not.

Higher Ed for Higher Standards, the American Association of Community Colleges, and the Association of Community College Trustees issued a joint statement on October 15, calling on community colleges to engage in strong partnerships with high schools and help them implement more ambitious K-12 standards and assessments to increase students’ college readiness.


Looks like computation of slope, and then some. (Robert Couse-Baker / Flickr Creative Commons)

With nearly half of first-year college students entering a two-year college needing to take remedial courses and about 20 percent of students entering four-year universities requiring basic developmental courses before they can begin credit-bearing coursework, remediation is putting a “tremendous strain on resources that can be applied to teaching students at the college level,” the statement declares.

Referring to the Common Core State Standards in math and English, the group wrote this:

We applaud states that have made great strides over the past several years in implementing more challenging K-12 standards designed to prepare students for success in college and careers. This work holds tremendous potential for increasing the number of students who arrive in our colleges and businesses prepared for success.

This fall will mark a critical milestone in states’ efforts to raise educational standards: The results of new K-12 student assessments, aligned to college readiness standards, will be released in dozens of states across the country. For the first time, scores on high school assessments will have a meaningful connection to college and career success. Students who meet college readiness standards will be more prepared for successful transition into credit-bearing college coursework and training opportunities.

I also applaud states, including Maryland and Illinois, for adopting the Common Core State Standards in math and English. Unfortunately, education doesn’t happen at the state level.

The joint statement, in my opinion, is shallow in that it promotes a narrowing of high school curricula in the false service of “college readiness.” Mastery of standards in the Common Core will not make a student ready for college work, and moreover, what constitutes college readiness depends on which college or university we’re talking about.

The statement does not enlighten us about remediation, either. We know remedial or “developmental” courses get students nowhere. Students who take too many are more likely to drop out of college before completing their first degree than they are to graduate.

And there’s the rub: The objectives in the Common Core in math and English are more rigorous than the watered-down standards many states were using before they adopted the new standards in 2010. Setting the bar higher is a good thing, and we support these organizations in that regard. “More rigorous standards for what students should know and be able to do have the potential to drive much-needed improvements in America’s classrooms,” US Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote about two years ago.

The tests students are taking, though, whether they are tests from PARCC or Smarter Balanced, which are aligned to the Common Core, or college admissions tests like the ACT or SAT, or any high school exit exam like Maryland’s HSAs or California’s old CAHSEE, don’t seem to have any connection to what people call “college readiness.” The whole argument used by these associations, then, is cast into doubt.

Plus, I also support kids who don’t want to go to college. Kids aren’t cash cows that our universities and community colleges can treat as a piggy bank, taking them through semester after semester of remedial coursework, until they throw in the towel. There’s got to be a balance, and this statement about tougher standards will not help us move in that direction.

It will, however, encourage collaboration between community colleges and high schools, giving our high school teachers, some of whom may not be strong in English or math despite their teaching assignment, much needed assistance from the greater community. That’s the kind of thing we need more of, and math and English are not the worst of all places to start.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.