Ohio budget bill tugs College Credit Plus in wrong direction

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NOTE: An addendum to this blog post, incorporating important new information, was published on Ohio Gadfly Daily on 4/17/17.

College Credit Plus (CCP) provides qualified Ohio students with the opportunity to undertake college coursework while still in high school. Students in grades 7-12 can earn college credit in three ways: by taking a course on a university campus; at the student’s high school where it’s taught by a credentialed teacher; or online.

As the program’s popularity has surged, there have been growing pains and calls to scale it back. Other folks claim that it exemplifies and perhaps even fosters inequitable access—it’s just too hard for some students to qualify. It’s true that not everyone interested in CCP is permitted to enroll. But the program wasn’t designed for totally open access; it was built for middle and high schoolers who could demonstrate that they were ready for college-level content. Other pathways are available for students who fall just below CCP standards but are still interested in challenging courses like AP, IB, and honors courses.

Unfortunately, proposals in Ohio’s pending budget bill would make it easier for unqualified students to enroll in CCP. Here’s what is being proposed:

Lowering CCP’s admission bar

Under current law, students interested in CCP must meet a participating college’s “established standards for admission and course placement” in order to enroll. Generally this means applicants must prove they’re ready for the rigors of a college course and thus not in need of remediation. In addition to entrance exams, colleges and universities are permitted to use course placement tests (such as ACCUPLACER) to determine whether students meet these standards—and it’s through that latter route that the pending budget would lower the bar. 

The budget deems students who score “within one standard error of measurement below the remediation-free threshold” on these assessments to have met the remediation-free standard provided—even though they didn’t. In an effort to appear as though high expectations have been maintained, the budget adds requirements—students are only considered remediation-free if they have either a cumulative high school grade point average of at least 3.0 or a recommendation from a school counselor, principal, or career technical (CTE) program advisor.

Lowering CCP’s admission bar is problematic for several reasons. Postsecondary institutions selected remediation-free thresholds for good reason. Easing this standard undermines their decisions and disregards their experience and expertise in judging what students must know in order to succeed at the college level in their institutions. Students who are unable to score above these thresholds are likely to struggle and perhaps even fail the college course. This matters because CCP courses are factored into a student’s high school GPA. This means that if one earns a D in a CCP course, that grade appears on one’s high school and college transcripts, and is calculated into their GPA at both institutions.

Note, too, that the additional “requirements” that have been added (a 3.0 GPA or a recommendation) aren’t necessarily indicative of college readiness or future success. Grade inflation is rampant in today’s schools—and on many college campuses, too—and GPAs can hide a lot of issues. For instance a 3.0 could represent passing grades in easy classes that don’t come close to the rigor of college level coursework. The administrator recommendation requirement is even worse. All a student (or her parents) has to do is plead with—and convince—a school staffer that she is “ready” for college absent any hard evidence of such readiness, particularly since teachers didn’t make the list of those who can provide a recommendation.

The college-ready program

As worrisome as lowering the admissions bar is, it only allows some additional students to access CCP. Lest anyone else feel left out, Ohio’s budget has also addressed those students for whom even a lower admissions bar won’t help.

The new college-ready program is meant to “provide high school students with college-ready transitional courses.” It aims to serve students who need “additional coursework to qualify to take courses to earn college credit while enrolled in high school and/or be prepared for college upon graduation.” Basically, it will offer newly created remedial courses to students who are able to determine that the classes their schools are currently offering aren’t preparing them to complete college-level work during—or after—high school graduation. It’s tantamount to the state openly admitting that its high schools are failing to do their foremost job.

Yes, a program such as this could be an intriguing solution to the college remediation problem. Rather than forcing students to take expensive, non-credit bearing courses after reaching the college campus, why not get remediation out of the way in high school?

But the college-ready program laid out in legislation has significant problems. For starters, the timeline for developing it is far too short. The budget calls for all program requirements, instructional models, and application guidelines for interested schools to be published by February 1, 2018 and for courses to launch in the fall of 2018. Ohio’s finalized budget is typically signed in June. This means that the workgroup responsible for developing this program has only eight months to create an entire system from scratch. Considering that it took the state over a year to review academic standards that had already been written, it seems like a tall order to ask a workgroup to create an entire system of remedial courses so swiftly.

More worrisome still is the lack of evidence that this program will actually get more kids college ready. If this provision becomes law, thousands of students could spend time and energy taking courses that haven’t been tested for rigor or proven to be effective with early remediation. Ohio would be far better off stretching the timeline and starting the program as a small-scale pilot that measures student achievement and impacts. During the pilot, the state could also examine schools that already incorporate effective remediation.

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These proposals, while generally well intentioned, aren’t in the best interest of Buckeye students. While we hail the impulse to offer free college classes to as many students as possible, the state already has multiple options. To succeed, CCP participation should be limited to those who can actually demonstrate their college readiness. Furthermore, while policymakers should absolutely continue considering ways to increase the number of high schoolers ready for credit-bearing college work prior to exiting 12th grade, rushing to create a statewide system of courses that could end up as watered down as those currently offered isn’t the way to go about it.

 
 
Jessica Poiner
Jessica Poiner is an education policy analyst in the Fordham Institute’s Columbus office. She was a 2011 Teach For America corps member who worked and taught in Shelby County Schools and the Achievement School District.