High school achievement tests can be good predictors of how students will fare in community college, according to new research that adds to the case for using more than just placement tests to decide which students need to take remedial courses.
However, the study also identified a “disturbing” achievement gap, with Latino and black students being less likely than their Asian and white peers to take and pass transfer-level college courses. And that the gap occurs even among students who performed well on their high school tests.
The report was written by Michal Kurlaender, an associate professor at the University of California at Davis’s School of Education, and Matthew F. Larsen, a postdoctoral teaching fellow in economics at Tulane University. It is one of three new studies on community colleges that Arizona State University’s Education Policy Analysis Archives released this week.
Kurlaender said in an interview that the study’s data set is fairly unique, because it matches up information on four cohorts of first-time freshmen who attended California community colleges with their standardized test score results as high school juniors.
Solid numbers that cross the high-school-to-college transition are hard to come by, she said, particularly from the sprawling California education systems. But California’s community colleges are arguably the most important segment of American higher education from a college completion standpoint, and definitely the biggest, with 2.4 million students.
“California serves students from a tremendous range of ethnic and socioeconomic origins, and offers great individual and institutional diversity,” the report said. “While California may not be a typical state, it reflects the student populations of other states in the U.S. and the community colleges that educate them.”
Kurlaender said the research is also interesting because the state’s community colleges have been particularly committed to an open-access admissions approach, and rarely see students’ high school grades, test scores or sometimes even diplomas. So relatively little is known about how high school affects college readiness at California community colleges, although that may be changing at some of the colleges.
The study measured students’ performance in four areas during their first year of enrollment at community colleges: the portion of courses they took that are transferable to the California State University System, the portion of remedial or basic skills courses taken, and GPAs in both types of courses.
Across all segments, the students who did better on the statewide standardized high school tests, the California Standardized Tests, in English and math were also more likely to perform well academically. But the high school tests more clearly predicted success in course taking (meaning more transferable courses versus remedial ones) than in college GPAs.
“The relationship exists for all racial and ethnic groups,” said Kurlaender.
The research therefore builds on high-profile studies that have argued for the use of high school grades and other measures of academic performance to determine remedial needs, rather than just relying on popular placement tests, like the ACCUPLACER and COMPASS. (Some California community colleges also use their own placement tests.) Those studies found that too many students are being placed into remedial courses, where they face long odds of ever earning a degree or transferring to a four-year college.
However, the new research also found a troubling achievement gap. Regardless of their academic achievements in high school, Asian and white students consistently enroll in more transferable courses than their Latino and black counterparts do, according to the study.
“It’s persistent,” Kurlaender said, “even at higher levels of achievement.”
For example, among college students who scored in the top 25 percent of high school English achievement test takers, white students took 13 percent more transferable college courses than did black students and 11 percent more than Latino students did.
The study was not able to determine what is causing those gaps. But Kurlaender said there are probably several reasons, including students’ knowledge of what to expect in college. Latino and black students are less likely than their peers to have family members who attended college, which can be a big disadvantage in navigating the bureaucracies of a community college. And California's two-year system has been hard hit by years of budget cuts, which has led to overbooked courses and, in some cases, one academic adviser for every 2,000 students.
Others potential reasons could be shortcomings in placement tests, which might favor white students because of cultural biases. And Kurlaender said achievement gaps probably are also fueled by differences in the academic quality of high schools, as well as between community colleges.
“There’s a huge difference between campuses,” she said. “They serve different students. They have different programs.”
Many questions remain about the college readiness in California. And Kurlaender said the study reinforces an urgent need for educators to better-understand the path between high school and community college.