Common Core Gets a Footing

A growing number of states and colleges are beginning to use Common Core-based assessments to determine student placement and college readiness. 

April 28, 2015

The much-debated Common Core State Standards and the assessments that accompany them are designed to prove high school graduates are ready for a rigorous college curriculum.

But since the standards and assessments were first revealed years ago, most colleges have remained silent on Common Core and left the debate and development of the issue largely in the hands of K-12 administrators, teachers and parents.

That's starting to change. Earlier this month, four Delaware colleges announced they would use the Common Core-based Smarter Balanced assessment to measure college readiness and will accept scores in lieu of a separate placement exam. More than 100 colleges in California, 10 in Hawaii, 24 in Oregon, 49 in Washington and 6 in South Dakota use the Smarter Balanced assessment as a placement exam.

Two colleges in Colorado and the members of the Illinois Council of Community College Presidents are using the Common Core-based PARCC exam, also known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, to evaluate college readiness. 

"This is a game changer," Tony Alpert, executive director of Smarter Balanced, said in an email. "In the past, most state tests had no linkage to higher education. Smarter Balanced has worked with states and higher education to give meaning to high school exams." 

Yet the move by colleges to accept the Common Core assessments comes at a time when many parents and anti-testing advocates are pushing back against the exams. Nearly 15 percent of high school juniors in New Jersey refused to take the PARCC exam this year, and students in Oregon opted out of Smarter Balanced in significant numbers. 

Aims Community College, in Greeley, Colo., is looking to validate the PARCC exam this fall by using scores to determine if the exam actually does determine college readiness. The college joined Adams State University, in Alamosa, Colo., in becoming “PARCC Pioneers” earlier this year. Adams State will use the exam, in addition to the ACT, to place students in college courses.

“We want to take a look to see if it’s an effective measurement and whether the instrument itself is good,” Aims President Marsi Liddell said. “We have a very robust institutional effectiveness and assessment office. What sets us apart is that we’re a local junior college district with our own tax base and close partnerships with feeder high schools.”

The ACT is mandated for all high school juniors in Colorado and can help determine college placement. But the benefit of having PARCC is students take the exam over multiple years and can begin remediation before they need it in college, said Rhonda Epper, chief student academic affairs officer for the Colorado Department of Higher Education.

“PARCC provides another avenue for students to demonstrate college readiness, and it can give feedback to students about where they are with respect to skills they need early in their high school career,” Epper said. “National awareness is growing that for students who begin in remedial courses the barriers to success are extremely high.”

She points to data from the nonprofit Complete College America that show lower completion rates for students who begin their college careers in remedial courses than for students who never took a remedial course. That study found that only 9.5 percent of students who began at a two-year college in remedial courses graduated within three years, while 35.1 percent of students at four-year colleges graduated within six years if they began in remedial courses. Students were more likely to graduate without remedial courses -- 13.9 percent within three years at a two-year college and 55.7 percent within six years at a four-year institution.

PARCC was administered for the first time in Colorado this year. The state is one of more than 40 that have adopted the Common Core standards. It is also one of 13 members to agree to use the PARCC. However, more states have pulled out of using the exam. At one point more than 20 states had agreed to administer PARCC.

Smarter Balanced has about 20 member states and the U.S. Virgin Islands., but at one point it had 31 members in the consortium. 

The backlash to PARCC has been larger in Colorado than in other places, and in some school districts thousands of parents opted their students out of the assessments this spring, said Bob Schaeffer, public education director for FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing.

“There’s still a pretty significant disconnect between K-12 and higher education even though it’s clearly of interest in higher education to know how students are doing in K-12,” said Julie Poppen, communications manager for Colorado Department of Higher Education. “Ideally there would be a seamless system where you graduate, you apply to college, and they can determine if you’re ready for college work.”

One more college admission or placement exam may be even more confusing to high school students, Schaeffer said.

“It’s not a big deal yet, but we’re watching it,” Schaeffer said. “It’s not significant enough that the alliances of groups pushing against high-stakes testing in Colorado are even focused on it. They’re much more focused on opt-out.”

Epper said the more options that are available to students to qualify for college readiness, the less likely those students will be tied to one high-stakes exam like the ACT. The Colorado Community College System is developing a separate readiness exam, she said. 

“We’re committed to Colorado academic standards and we want students to take the assessment seriously so there’s more of a stake in the outcome for students if they know the PARCC scores can be considered for placement and admissions,” Epper said. 


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