California’s community colleges began a new paradigm for placement in math and English in response to historic legislation (AB 705, Irwin 2017; AB 1705 Irwin & Medina 2022). Instead of placement testing, colleges must use high school grades as the primary basis for placement and ensure that students begin in the course where they have the best chance of completing math and English requirements for a university degree within a year of enrolling in the discipline.
Translating these legislative mandates into placement rules has involved extensive research. This research uses overall high school GPA, instead of more narrow high school performance measures, because cumulative HS GPA is the best predictor of student performance in college math and English courses, according to previous studies.
Statewide analysis shows that students are more likely to complete transferable, college math and English if they bypass remedial courses and begin at the transfer-level. This is true for students regardless of HS GPA. For example, the progress of students with a relatively strong high school performance (GPA >=2.6) is hampered by taking a remedial course in math or English. Only 18% taking a remedial math course complete transfer-level math within a year, compared to 70% who start in transfer-level math. Students with weaker high school performance (GPA <1.9) are similarly stymied by taking even one remedial math course; 7% complete transfer-level math compared to 31% who skip remedial coursework. The patterns are the same in English.
Local placement validation studies by 114 community colleges have also been unable to reliably identify any group of students that is better off starting in a remedial course, including students who self-place into optional remedial courses.
Given this research, legislative mandates require California community colleges to place and enroll all students who graduated from a U.S. high school into transfer-level English and math that satisfies a requirement for their intended major or program. There are limited exceptions for students in career education programs with special math requirements, students who have neither graduated high school nor completed an equivalency certificate, and students with documented disabilities that make them unable to benefit from general college classes, even with accommodation. The law also includes separate provisions for students in credit ESL programs who did not graduate from a U.S. high school.
Under AB 705, placement must maximize a student’s likelihood of completing math and English requirements for a university degree. Research at both the state and local level consistently shows that regardless of HS GPA students are more likely to complete if they begin at the transfer-level and bypass remedial courses. For this reason, California community colleges cannot use placement processes to direct students into remedial coursework.
Even though students with lower high school GPAs are better off starting in transfer-level courses, they pass at lower rates and may benefit from extra support. Therefore, colleges now use the placement process to recommend or require enrollment in corequisite support linked to transfer-level courses. Students in corequisite support models have far higher completion than students taking remedial courses, and completion is also more equitable for Black and Hispanic students (Mejia et al, 2020).
The placement process is also used to help students choose the right transfer-level math or quantitative reasoning course for their major or program (e.g., Citrus College math pathways).
For more information, go to the CAP corequisites page.
Students with an unknown HS GPA are much more likely to complete transfer-level math and English if they begin at the transfer-level and bypass remedial courses, as shown in the graph on this page.
While California law requires that community colleges use high school performance as the primary means of placement, different processes are needed for students who do not have GPAs from U.S. high schools (e.g., homeschooled students). In these cases, colleges often provide an informed self-placement process in which students: 1) identify their intended program of study so they can be directed to the right math for their goals, and 2) choose either a standard transfer-level class or one with corequisite support.
Because many English language learners did not attend a U.S. high school, we can’t use the same methods to place these students into ESL courses. For now, California community colleges are still allowed to use standardized tests for placement in ESL. While further study is needed, research has yielded several important findings about placement of English language learners:
- English language learners who graduated from a U.S. high school have the highest completion when they begin directly into English composition, not ESL courses below this level, even if they only attended one year of high school in the U.S. or took many high school ESL courses.
- Completion is higher at colleges with more streamlined ESL sequences (e.g., fewer levels, integrated skills instead of separate reading, writing, grammar courses).
- When ESL courses earn transferable credit, student completion of English composition is higher (e.g., ESL courses earn general education credit for foreign language or the humanities).
Colleges are experimenting with a number of innovative practices to support English language learners, including corequisite-supported sections of English composition taught by ESL faculty, as well as professional development to help faculty support English language learners in mainstream English classes.
By July 2024, the California community college system will examine STEM math placement in response to legislation (AB 1705) that requires colleges to show that required prerequisites to calculus improve eventual completion of calculus.
While further study is needed, research has yielded several important findings about placement of STEM students:
- California community college STEM students who start in calculus complete it at much higher rates than those who start in preparatory prerequisites like College Algebra or Trigonometry. Shorter prerequisite pathways to calculus produce higher completion of calculus than longer pathways (PPIC 2021). The attrition in the pipeline to calculus follows a predictable pattern seen in remedial pipelines. Each additional prerequisite course in the pipeline roughly cuts calculus completion in half.
- According to a quasi-experimental study involving over 10,000 students at two- and four-year colleges, taking precalculus when in college did not produce statistically significant improvements in students’ performance in calculus. This was true for students with weaker high school math preparation and those who had previously passed precalculus in high school (Sonnert and Sadler 2014).
- California community college STEM students who have not passed Algebra 2 in high school are nearly four times more likely to complete a transferable, college-level calculus prerequisite (e.g., college algebra, precalculus, trigonometry) if they bypass intermediate algebra at the college and enroll directly in the transfer-level course (Hayward 2021).
Extensive research examined the impact of legislated placement reforms on special populations of California community college students during the first year of mandatory AB 705 implementation. Completion of transfer-level math and English increased for every group examined, including Black and Hispanic students, low-income students, students with disabilities, STEM students with weaker math preparation, students over the age of 35, foster youth, and veterans. For most of these groups, completion of transfer-level math doubled.
Why use HS GPA in placement?
- Overall HS GPA is a better predictor of a student’s college performance than standardized placement test scores: Scott-Clayton et al. 2014
- Overall HS GPA is a stronger predictor of performance in college-level math and English than narrower measures of high school achievement (e.g., highest successfully completed math course in high school, grade achieved in the most recent high school math course.) This is true for college-level STEM math as well as statistics. This is also true for students attending the community college directly after high school and for students who delay college attendance: Bahr et al. 2019
- Colleges can also rely on students to accurately self-report high school performance information without transcript verification: ACT 2016, Citrus College 2017
Placement rules based on HS GPA that maximize the timely completion of transfer-level courses in math and English: MMAP 2018