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WHAT DOES IT REALLY MEAN TO BE COLLEGE AND WORK READY: New NCEE Report Finds Community Colleges Have Low Expectations for Entering Students’ Reading and Math Skills

“If the United States does not fix this fast, its citizens will face a bleak economic future.”

Students typically need only middle school–level math skills to succeed in community college math courses while the reading complexity of texts used in initial courses in community colleges falls somewhere between grades 11 and 12. And even though community college courses have low expectations for students, community college students often lack even these basic skills, preventing many of them from succeeding in community college. Those are the key findings from a new report from the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE). The report, What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready: The English and Mathematics Required by First Year Community College Students, is based on a two-year study that examined the skills and knowledge in mathematics and English literacy that high school graduates need to succeed in the first year of community college.

“This report shows that our community colleges have shockingly low expectations of the students entering their institutions, because many—perhaps most—of our future nurses, EMTs, and auto mechanics haven’t mastered middle school mathematics and cannot read much of the material in their first-year college textbooks—even though they are only written at the 11th- and 12th-grade levels—and a large fraction of our future four-year college students have a very hard time writing a simple report that requires students to make an argument and support it with facts,” said NCEE President Marc Tucker. “If the United States does not fix this fast, its citizens will face a bleak economic future.”

The report focuses on community colleges because they educate 45 percent of U.S. college students and provide most of the vocational education in the United States, making them the “main gateway” to work requiring solid training but not a four-year degree. “It is clear that for a substantial majority of high school graduates, being ready to be successful in the first year of a typical community college program is tantamount to being ready for both college and work,” the report notes.

According to the report, students need to master middle school mathematics, especially arithmetic, ratios, proportions, expressions, and simple equations, to be successful in community college courses. Most community college first-year programs of study assume that students have not mastered Algebra I while the most advanced mathematics content used in the majority of first-year college programs is what the report calls “Algebra 1.25,” which consists of some of the topics usually associated with Algebra I, plus a few other topics mostly related to geometry or statistics.

Similarly, the report finds that the reading and writing requirements for students in initial credit-bearing courses in community colleges are “not very complex or cognitively demanding.” The report calls the requirements for writing “marginal at best” while the performance levels students are expected to meet in reading are “suprisingly modest.”

The report offers several recommendations that schools and community colleges can take to ensure that more high school graduates succeed in community colleges, including the following:

  • Include Algebra II as a key course on just one of several mathematics paths to a high school diploma, eliminating the mandatory status it has in some states.
  • Require most students to spend more time on middle school mathematics rather than rushing toward Algebra I.
  • Reconceive community college placement tests to align them with mathematics skills that students actually need to succeed in their initial credit-bearing, programmatic courses.
  • Increase writing assignments across all high school courses, especially those that require the presentation of a logical argument and evidence to support claims.
  • Require high school students to read and understand texts of greater complexity.

The complete report is available at

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