On Wednesday, California State Chancellor Timothy P. White announced that the public university system will no longer incorporate placement exams for English and mathematics for incoming freshmen. In his executive order, White stated that it was important to measure proficiency in English and mathematics through “multiple measures,” including SAT scores and high school grades. He also announced that Cal State would commence an “Early Start Program,” which is intended to help incoming students who have poor proficiency in the aforementioned subjects.
The controversy about remedial education and placement exams is not new. The Public Policy Institute of California, for example, found that eight out of ten community college students take remedial classes to gain college-level skills but only 16% of those students acquire either a skill certificate or finish a two-year degree within six years. This study sparked a conversation about whether these placement exams set up those who lack English or mathematics proficiency for failure, as opposed to properly preparing students for real-world jobs and skills. Thus, many argue that these new guidelines will do more to help people move forward in their careers and education.
Some individuals argued that these placement exams are somewhat discriminatory toward low-income families and people of color. One of those who imported intersectionality into this debate was California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, who said the following to the Los Angeles Times:
This is the right approach for all of public higher education, particularly for broad-access public institutions like the community colleges and the CSU. I personally strongly believe that standardized placement exams have handicapped hundreds of thousands of our students, and they particularly target low-income students and students of color. We have, in my opinion, been placing many students in remedial courses that really didn’t belong in those remedial courses — and in doing so have made it harder for them to complete their college educations.
Here’s the problem with this line of thinking: These examinations are utilized to determine how capable an individual is when performing specialized tasks that require a certain degree of understanding of the English language and of mathematics. In a highly technical world, more students are moving toward careers in engineering, statistics, and other topics that first require a foundational understanding of mathematics. In addition, possessing command of the English language is paramount to communicating information. Those placement exams are necessary for seeing how much students need to improve and gives students an opportunity to pursue their education appropriately as opposed to rigging the system to circumvent the process.
If Cal State does not maintain standards of proficiency and an equitable mechanism for determining that, then it opens the door to changing additional standards for providing an education beyond the first year of college. By creating arbitrary systems of proficiency under the assumption that individuals of specific socioeconomic and ethnic populations need additional help, it cheapens the quality of the education it provides to its students and also inadequately prepares students for the real world.
College is not meant to hold students’ hands in pursuit of a degree; it is intended to produce capable individuals who invest in their education and work hard to make a decent living afterward. To dumb down the basic requirements of English and mathematics is to pave the road to the dumbing down of the population. That is absolutely unacceptable for a university system like Cal State to want to create.