Why top students end up in remedial English

Despite California’s strong content standards, many high school graduates aren’t ready for college-level classes or careers, write Bill Tucker and Anne Hyslop in Education Sector’s new report, Ready by Design: A College and Career Agenda for California. They discovered a disconnect between what high school English classes are teaching and what colleges expect students to be able to do.

San Diego County’s West Hills High School has many of the hallmarks of a solid school. Its middle-class students consistently master state standards, perform well on state achievement tests, and graduate at a high rate. But four years ago, school leaders realized they had a big problem. A stunning 95 percent of the top students in senior English
courses who were headed to nearby community colleges failed the colleges’ English placement tests.

. . . Alarmed, West Hills’ teachers joined with faculty at the Grossmont-Cuyamaca Community College District to see what had gone awry. They investigated years of student transcripts, exchanged lesson plans, and shared curricula.

They discovered high school students who’d done well in literature classes weren’t prepared for college classes that required “argumentation skills, analytical thinking, and writing clearly to inform, persuade, and describe.” (When I was in high school, we did nothing but expository writing, but that was before the invention of the journal.)

High school teachers revamped their English classes and persuaded local community colleges to let A and B English students skip the placement test and start in college-level courses. Success rates are high –86 percent — for West Hills graduates.

California needs to assess whether high schools are preparing students to succeed in college — not just enroll — and in careers, the report ecommends. The state’s Academic Performance Index looks only at test scores and graduation rates.

In addition to test scores, Florida measures participation and successful completion of advanced coursework like AP, IB, and dual enrollment, and industry certifications and performance on college entrance exams, Tucker and Hyslop write. “Although these additional measures are only predictors of preparedness, they are more closely related to desired outcomes than state test scores alone.”


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  1. Pam Kramer says:

    Part of the problem often is in the placement tests themselves. I grew up in Michigan, where I developed strong “argumentation skills, analytical thinking, and writing (abilities to) clearly to inform, persuade, and describe” in high school. But I failed the placement exam. I hauled a satchel of my writing to the head of the department at the University of Michigan and challenged him to tell me that I belonged in Basic English. He waived the requirement for me. After a long career as a reporter at a major metro daily, I’m now a teacher — and I see many examples of bad tests and bad rubrics. They sort of stomp on good writing.

  2. Thomas Garrison says:

    That weird business of exempting students from placement tests makes me confused and suspicious.

    Placement tests—ASSET, COMPASS, what have you—are a standard part of matriculation at every community college I’ve attended, requiring no more than a few hours and a trivial fee ($17 at my current school). They are used throughout the institution; almost every course description for classes without coursework prerequisites will include a line like “requires score of XX or better on the ASSET writing test” or requires placement in MATH XX or higher on the COMPASS test”. Will the Grossmont-Cuyamaca catalog now be full of “unless student earned an A or B in class X at [one particular high school]”? That’s spaghetti coding applied to course descriptions, and will require whoever is setting prereqs for the college to have an intimate knowledge of courses at one obscure high school—I can barely remember any of the vast smorgasbord of math and English courses available to juniors and seniors to satisfy graduation requirements when I was in high school; I would need to interrogate each teacher to determine how well the, for example, Science Fiction class would prepare students for work in a community college Business Administration class.

    I find it suspicious that one high school would go out of its way to make it difficult to make comparisons between its students and the entire rest of the community college student body via a standard, trivial placement exam. If they’re doing such a good job now then what are they hiding?

  3. A stunning 95 percent of the top students in senior English
    courses who were headed to nearby community colleges failed the colleges’ English placement tests.

    Top students are headed to community colleges? Since when? Something wrong with this, and very wrong with the whole premise of accepting grades as placement.

    I very much doubt that the students are that incompetent. They would have done better, and spent less money, had they just familiarized the students with the format.

    The placement exams often have an automatic “fail” for anyone who writes a five-paragraph essay (the UCs,for example). The instructions often require that the reading prompt be restated and then analyzed. If you simply tell students to do this, the pass rate skyrockets.

    • Mark Roulo says:

      From the article:

      The [high school] students had excelled at what they were taught. But what they were taught had very little to do with what those students would need when they entered college.

      “Students weren’t prepared for college because their high school English classes were teaching them something entirely different from what the college expected them to learn,” say Bill Tucker and Anne Hyslop in a new Education Sector report.

      • Yes, that couldn’t be advocacy propaganda. I’m far better versed with what’s required on the placement tests than a hack.

  4. Placement Exams were used when I was admitted to college in 1981, and the english placement and math placement exams indicated what classes you were most likely to succeed in.

    For the majority of incoming freshmen, that usually meant placement into English 101 (assuming you took the recommended course of english I/II, Literature (American/European, etc), and Composition. In math, the majority of students wound up being placed into Pre-Calc or Calc (based on placement scores) and in most cases, the student usually wound up taking Algebra I, Geometry (Analytical), and Algebra II/Trig/Pre-Calc.

    Granted, a placement exam may not be accurate, but from what I recall of my Business and Technical writing classes (300/400 level courses in the English Dept), analysis and thinking, along with comprehension had a lot to do with success in those courses (along with being able to write coherently).

  5. Lightly Seasoned says:

    I, too, find it weird that top students from a good suburban school are headed off to junior college. In any case, it is possible that the students did little writing in their literature courses. Our students who are likely headed to community college tend to choose a senior English course that is similar to the English 101 there (and is taught by teachers who also teach at the cc). These are in no way, shape, or form our top students, but most of them do pass the placement test in English.

    • I think it is likely that many students do little writing, even in “good” suburban schools. A relative who teaches in one where any teacher suggesting that some students are not really college material is under immediate fire, discovered that her non-honors freshmen could not reliably identify the subject of a sentence with only one noun. They were seriously unprepared to write even a grammatically correct and coherent paragraph. It seems as if journaling – uncorrected for grammar or coherence, of course – has taken over both ES and MS and grammar and spelling was apparently ignored. They were also unprepared and unwilling to do independent reading. It’s hard to make up for 9 wasted years. Admittedly, my small-town school had a stable population and stable families, but even the students Cal would call “low-ability” could write correctly before they entered HS – but we were explicitly taught spelling, composition and grammar (including sentence diagramming). Kids who wanted to keep a journal did it on their own time, separate from schoolwork.

  6. Michael E. Lopez says:

    It’s not the top students in the school. We’re meant to think it was, because that sounds more dramatic, but that’s not what they actually said.

    It’s top students “in the Senior English courses.”

    In other words, it’s the top students in particular classes who also are headed off to CC and, once there, as a group, are failing the placement exams at a 95% rate.

    Here’s a model of what I think is going on: let’s say hypothetically that the school had 8 Senior English courses. 2 AP courses and 6 regular courses. Say that each course has 25 students, for a total of 200 students. These are ridiculous figures, but I’m just trying to illustrate something.

    Let’s say that “top” students in each class are the top 10 out of 25. Past that, it starts to get hard to talk about the “top”.

    How many of the “top” students in each class are going to community college? Probably zero from the AP class, probably three or four from each of the CP courses. Let’s say four. The rest are likely going to UC’s or Cal States directly. That’s 24 students out of 200 who are “top” students and are also headed for the local JC.

    Of those 24, let’s say that 22 fail. There’s your 95% fail rate.

    But those 22 represent only 10% of the senior class, and once you count the other top 10 students from each regular class as well as all the AP students, represent only about 22/110, or 20% of the “top” students in the school, and likely the bottom 20% of the best students.

    That’s all speculation of course, but I think that’s probably a likely explanation for the odd figure. (A figure that was apparently fixed quickly in any case just by switching an emphasis from the literary to the more philosophical.)

  7. so, ironically enough, an article that was all about how students are not able to write clearly was written unclearly enough that their “95%” figure was misunderstood by most readers.

    • Peace Corps says:

      If the writer had left out the word “top” would it have been clearer for you?

  8. No, I thought of that possibility, and if that’s what the author meant, then it wasn’t poor writing, but deliberate obfuscation.

    Momof4, as always, you seem to be reading out of the Big Book of Truisms from the When I Was a Kid Walking Uphill Both Ways to School Era. Your observations of what you think is happening today are never even in the ballpark of correct.

  9. Richard Aubrey says:

    Presumably, at one time, this wasn’t the case. The outcome of the ed process has changed. Therefore, we ought to know what, in the process, has changed.
    Had a comp class in HS, under the dreaded Bev Jones–good teacher with scary classroom control capabilities and high standards–which was all about writing. SVO, grammar, clarity, etc.
    No navel-gazing allowed, nor breaks for “insight”.
    I’m getting the impression this is not always the case.
    Okay. Whose idea was that? What was the supposed benefit?
    Was “content” to trump exposition skills, as “thinking skills” are supposed to trump actually knowing stuff?

    Alt explanation. This is not new.