Recommendations and Toolkit

The failure to wholly provide equitable support for students of color suggests possible flaws in the theory of change that underlies prior improvement attempts. In Washington State, colleges have high levels of autonomy relative to colleges in states that have more centralized CTC systems. In this decentralized context, many improvement efforts rely on a theory that college leaders will adopt a new policy if they have evidence from another college in the state that the policy in question can achieve a desired result. Change efforts often start by attempting small scale ”pilot projects” at one college or a small group of colleges and then attempting to document the outcomes under the assumption that documentation and broad dissemination will persuade leaders at other colleges to adopt the new policy. This theory — premised on concepts of local control and voluntary adoption of policies — deserves deeper interrogation.

With all these factors in mind, we’re making a recommendation for a statewide paradigm shift in how placement is thought about and implemented, along with specific, more immediate recommendations supported by the evidence in this report that can better support students of color and reduce the inequities at play.

View the Toolkit as a PDF

Pushing for a paradigm shift in placement 

To improve access to college-level courses and increase racial equity in college placement outcomes for students across Washington state, we recommend that CTCs make placement into college-level courses the default for all recent high school graduates.

Faced with similar issues related to precollege education and institutional racism, other states have moved away from a voluntary college-by-college theory of change to one driven explicitly by state policy. California lawmakers recently passed legislation creating a new approach to assessment and placement under which, “students are no longer asked to prove they are ready for [college level] courses. Instead, colleges must prove if students are not ready” (Mejia, Rodriguez and Johnson 2020). This shift in the overarching assessment and placement framework represents a sea change. Early evidence suggests that this approach can dramatically improve access to college-level courses and reduce inequity across racial and ethnic groups.

We call on Washington State education leaders to support statewide action that would ensure the rapid implementation of default college level placement for all recent high school graduates. A statewide approach is needed to reduce and eliminate the harm being caused to students and communities of color, and must:

  • Align relevant policies between the K–12 and postsecondary system.
  • Develop systems of accountability in order to actively track and address equity gaps.
  • Leverage lessons learned from colleges who have proactively sought to address equity gaps in the placement process.
  • Support the implementation of related statewide policy initiatives, such as Guided Pathways.
  • Shift institutional resources from practices that support a gatekeeping philosophy to practices that support targeted and holistic student support.

Areas of early adoption could act as feasible case studies for education leaders to learn from. Racial justice advocates — including equity-minded leaders in the community and technical college system — could organize a lobbying effort to ensure that statewide policies are introduced and implemented in an expeditious manner. In Washington State, groups like the Equity in Education Coalition, the College Promise Coalition and Washington Roundtable could play defining roles in this effort.

Eradicating racist policies and other systemic barriers that impact students of color will be incredibly challenging. Road Map region CTC leaders — including presidents, faculty and staff at all levels — can begin by adopting an antiracist approach to their improvement efforts. In taking an antiracist approach, leaders would explicitly seek to improve racial equity between racial groups, acknowledge that race-neutral policies do not create racial equity and be comfortable allocating resources to creating new policies that account for these inherent inequities.

K–12 and Community and Technical College Recommendations

Below are four more immediate recommendations and aligned actions that can help the current system evolve in this direction. Each recommendation is accompanied with aligned actions and toolkits for the key leaders who can affect change.

Recommendation 1

Center students of color in the redesign of placement practices and ensure that they experience enrollment and placement as welcoming, trusting, and empowering. 

  • Action 1: Develop and maintain a stakeholder accountability group comprised of students, families, high school, and college representatives, as well as community partners to review placement data (access, equity, success) and provide input and guidance on placement policies. 
  • Action 2: Develop and evaluate asset-based policies that affirm the knowledge, experiences and abilities that students possess when they enter college. 
  • Action 3: In partnership with college staff and students of color, develop, implement, and evaluate practices that require learning about students’ educational goals and abilities, and that provide the support needed to be successful in college courses. 

Recommendation 2

Transform placement practices and transcript-based placement policies to maximize student access to college-level courses. 

  • Action 1: Eliminate underplacement through the utilization of transcript-based placement as the default method for all recent high school graduates. 
  • Action 2: Broaden the high school GPA and course grade thresholds used in college-level placement criteria to increase access to and success in college-level courses. Prioritize approaches that improve racial equity. 
  • Action 3: Mitigate shortcomings to transcript-based placement by offering a range of flexible, non-test based assessment options to maximize the number of students who enter and complete transfer-level coursework within a one-year timeframe. 
  • Action 4: Eliminate or condense precollege course sequences that place students in precollege courses for longer than one quarter. Explore alternatives to precollege courses to maximize students’ likelihood of entering and completing college-level math and English. 
  • Action 5: Prioritize communication to students, families and high school counselors about their assessment and placement options. 
  • Action 6: Publicly post information about placement methods and outcomes on both college and statewide platforms. Include data on underplacement (i.e., students who meet college placement criteria but take precollege courses). 

Recommendation 3

Investigate and acknowledge the impact of current placement practices at your institution on students of color. 

  • Action 1: Evaluate and assess placement method and subsequent outcomes to better understand and address racial inequity in precollege coursetaking. 
  • Action 2: Publish a statement that acknowledges current placement policies are harmful to students of color, apologizes to students who have been harmed, and commits to improving policies to better support racial equity goals. 
  • Action 3: Investigate institutional culture to identify and address implicit bias and gatekeeping practices within the enrollment, placement, and advising process. 

Recommendation 4

Investigate and acknowledge the impact of inequitable grading distribution and access to math for students of color.

  • Action 1: Investigate and acknowledge the impact of inequitable grading distribution and access to math for students of color. 
  • Action 2: Publish a statement that acknowledges racial inequity in regards to access to high quality learning opportunities and higher-level math courses for students of color, apologizes to students who have been denied those opportunities, and commits to improving policies to better support racial equity goals. 
  • Action 3: Investigate institutional culture to identify and address implicit bias and gatekeeping practices within the enrollment, placement, and advising process.