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Align K-12 and Postsecondary Placement Exams

Align statewide K-12 learning assessments with transparent college readiness standards and placement exams, so the junior and senior years of high school can be used for remediation and postsecondary acceleration

Create Smarter

States committed to increasing postsecondary attainment must prioritize increasing college readiness, particularly for low-income and minority students. According to several research studies, including a study by ACT Inc., college readiness is the single greatest predictor of college completion. When high school students and teachers, in particular, do not have clear signals from assessments about gaps in college readiness, states lose the opportunity to remediate or accelerate students before they ever enroll in college.

States have a responsibility for ensuring that assessments taken by their high school students measure their progress toward meeting college- and career-ready expectations and are highly predictive of subsequent success in credit-bearing college courses, but a recent study by the Community College Research Center indicates that most of the  commonly used college placement tests fall short. Readiness assessments should be administered during the sophomore or junior year of high school to track student progress toward college readiness and allow time for remediation or acceleration during high school. Remediation in college delays or stymies completion and increases costs. Further, college readiness assessments should provide teachers and school leaders with guidance for bolstering their curriculum to ensure course content matches college readiness expectations and for developing both remedial and accelerated courses. Finally, such readiness tests should be aligned with or replace college placement tests to avoid unnecessary duplication of assessments.



According to a recent Brookings Institution paper, existing measures of college readiness reveal that a significant number of high school students are unprepared for college-level coursework, despite rising expectations that more students complete rigorous, college-level or college preparatory courses in high school. For example, in The Condition of College & Career Readiness 201233 percent of the high school class of 2012 did not meet the college readiness standard on the ACT English test, 48 percent did not meet the standard in reading, and 54 percent did not meet the standard in math. The report also found that  significant numbers of graduates do not meet the college readiness benchmarks despite the fact that 76 percent have completed a “core curriculum” that purported to prepare them for college. In many cases, high school courses, even those that are supposedly advanced courses, are not necessarily providing students with the knowledge and skills they need.

Large numbers of students graduate from high school and enroll in college believing they are prepared for it but find they are not. According to one study by Complete College America (CCA), more than 50 percent of students enrolling in two-year colleges and nearly 20 percent of those at four-year institutions are placed in remedial courses. Furthermore, research shows that students who enroll in remedial courses are less likely to complete on time. CCA found that fewer than 10 percent of students seeking an associate degree and needing remediation complete within three years, and only about one-third of those seeking bachelor’s degrees and needing remediation complete within six years. Research by the Community College Research Center also indicates that the assessments often used for making decisions about placement in remedial courses are not strong predictors of student success in college.

State Examples

Each of the following state examples is a policy solution crafted in response to the unique circumstances of the state in which it was formed. As a private foundation, Lumina does not support or oppose any legislation. Lumina provides educational information, nonpartisan research and analysis to advance Goal 2025.


The California State University (CSU), California Department of Education and California State Board of Education worked together to create the Early Assessment Program (EAP) to ensure college-bound high school students have the math and English skills required and expected by the state university system. Typically, CSU has admitted students first and then tested them for readiness in reading, writing and math. Those identified as not ready have been placed in remedial courses. CSU faculty and K-12 teachers jointly developed augmented 11th-grade California Standards Tests (CSTs) in English and math. They ensured that the assessments covered the state high school standards as well as the CSU placement standards. Administrators can compute special scores from a subset of CST items and the CSU-augmented items and determine whether students’ scores meet the CSU standards. Eleventh-grade students are notified whether they have met the standard and therefore do not need additional CSU placement testing, or whether they have not met the standard and need additional preparation. CSU and K-12 faculty have jointly developed reading and writing courses and have identified math courses students can take during their senior year to improve readiness. Students who meet the benchmarks can enroll in more challenging, college-level courses during the high school senior year and avoid taking additional placement exams once enrolled at a CSU institution. The EAP also includes professional development opportunities for high school English and math teachers.


Louisiana administers the ACT to all 11th-grade students and uses scores to determine students’ college readiness and for admissions and placement decisions. Students identified as not ready for entry-level, credit-bearing college courses are notified and provided with remedial assistance in some school districts while still in high school. Following adoption of the Common Core State Standards for K-12 schools, the state also became one of the founding governing states of the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). PARCC is a partnership of 20 states working together to create common K-12 assessments aligned with the Common Core State Standards and with college and career readiness expectations. Louisiana’s public two-year and four-year institutions have committed to participating in PARCC, helping to develop the assessments, and using the assessments as an indicator of students’ readiness for entry-level, credit-bearing college courses once PARCC data support college readiness. For more information, see PARCC States—Louisiana and Achieve Inc.’s Louisiana state profile, fact sheet and slide deck.

New York

Similarly, the New York State Board of Regents is working with the State University of New York (SUNY) and the City University of New York (CUNY) to redesign the state’s high school assessments, the Regents exams, to better align with college readiness expectations. Further, they are working together to develop a curriculum for 12th-grade transition courses both to help build the needed knowledge and skills of students who are not ready for college work and also to provide college-level coursework opportunities for students who are ready. The assessments will be administered in the 10th or 11th grade beginning in the 2013-2014 school year.

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