Issues in Basic Skills Assessment and Placement in the California Community Colleges

Basic Skills Committee

When the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges compiled best practices for serving basic skills students in 2002-2003, assessment practices were notably absent. In this paper, problems with current assessment and placement practices with regards to basic skills are explored. The paper begins with a review of the matriculation process and the most appropriate assessment instruments for use in placing basic skills students into courses. Issues confronting the assessment and placement process are presented, including the stigma of the "basic skills" label, the particular difficulties faced by non-native speakers of English, and the lack of resources for adequate orientation and counseling for entering basic skills students. Concerns about the disparity between the number of students assessed and the number who actually enroll in basic skills are also reviewed. The paper moves on to discuss how best to measure "success" in basic skills, vital to appropriate evaluation of our current assessment and placement processes. Based on the discussion in the paper, several recommendations for improving the overall success of basic skills students in the community colleges are made.


Assessment and placement are vital components in preparing students for college-level work. At the current time, assessment and placement processes at colleges face many challenges, most of them the result of inadequate resources. The efficacy of assessment and placement processes needs to be evaluated to improve these processes and show how they impact student success. It is with these concerns in mind that the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges makes the following recommendations.

  1. Resources: Adequate resources must be provided to colleges to perform validation of assessment tests and prerequisites. In addition to funding for research staff, this includes support for the process of test validation and establishment of cut scores.
  2. Writing Assessment: Appropriate assessment of writing ability needs to be implemented because one of the requirements for college-level study is the ability to communicate effectively in writing. Adequate resources need to be provided to permit such assessment.
  3. Technical Assistance: The Academic Senate and the Chancellor's Office should provide technical assistance to colleges whose assessment processes are inadequate according to their own reporting.
  4. Orientation: High school students who complete language and mathematics requirements for graduation often find themselves placed in pre-college-level work after undergoing assessment at a community college. Colleges can do little to affect the preparation received in high schools. However, they can work to encourage entering students to address their English and mathematics needs right from the start. Orientation should address the importance of basic skills, ESL, and mathematics preparation.
  5. Counseling: Adequate counseling resources need to be provided to further encourage under-prepared students to enroll in coursework that will ultimately lead to their success in college-level work.
  6. Common Definitions: A clear understanding of "college-level" work needs to be shared among all segments of higher education. The Academic Senate should work with its higher education partners in clarifying what constitutes "college-level" and "pre-collegiate" work and expectations for students entering higher education.
  7. Availability of Data: Current MIS data collection concerning assessment and matriculation fails to provide important information for the review of the success of basic skills programs. The Academic Senate should work with the Chancellor's Office to identify additional types of data that need to be collected with regards to basic skills programs and student success in these programs.
  8. Assessment Coordination: Urban area colleges in close proximity to one another may consider opening discussions on how to discourage such placement/assessment strategies as "college shopping" and "assessment shopping."