Cover: Supporting College Enrollees Who Test at the Lowest Levels of Readiness

Supporting College Enrollees Who Test at the Lowest Levels of Readiness

Lessons from Texas Community Colleges

Published Aug 26, 2019

by Lindsay Daugherty, Trey Miller, Diana Gehlhaus

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Research Questions

  1. What did the reforms consist of — i.e., what did the state recommend, and what resources and guidance were offered to support colleges as they responded to recommendations?
  2. What were the characteristics of the student population that tested at the lowest levels on the state placement exam and was targeted by the reforms?
  3. To what degree did colleges implement the reforms that the state recommended?
  4. What were some of the biggest implementation barriers that colleges faced, and how did colleges overcome these barriers?

RAND researchers partnered with the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and American Institutes for Research to support the state's developmental education reform efforts through a combination of continuous improvement support and analysis of statewide data on implementation. One of the reforms examined through the study was the state's recommendation that colleges should offer targeted academic support to students who tested at the lowest levels on the state placement exam (i.e., below the ninth-grade level) beginning in fall 2015. To support colleges, Texas policymakers offered resources and guidance in three areas: (1) new, detailed assessment scores that were developed to better identify students entering at the lowest levels of readiness; (2) course offerings and funding that allow colleges to offer concurrent academic support alongside entry-level courses; and (3) guidance and funding to support the referral of students to adult education and continuing education programs. This report describes findings from the study, including a description of the recommendations and resources offered by the state; a discussion of the students targeted with these new reforms; and findings on the implementation of the state-recommended reforms by community colleges and the challenges colleges faced with implementation. The report also highlights lessons learned for colleges in Texas and across the nation as they explore options for serving students who test at the lowest levels of readiness.

Key Findings

A small but significant number of students with low readiness levels enroll in college

  • Among students first enrolling in credit-bearing coursework at Texas community colleges in the fall of 2015, 7 percent were assessed at the lowest levels (i.e., possibly indicating readiness below ninth-grade level) on the state's placement exam.
  • The state's recommendations spurred many colleges to develop specialized academic supports and refer students testing at the lowest levels into these supports.

Texas community colleges encountered some challenges in developing programs and ensuring that students testing at the lowest levels received targeted academic support

  • Although 79 percent of colleges reported using the new assessment scores as of 2016, several challenges were identified, including lack of access to scores, misunderstandings about what the scores reflected and how to use them, and lack of information about students' other needs that could be used to supplement assessment scores.
  • Two-thirds of colleges reported offering concurrent academic support alongside entry-level courses; the lack of take-up in some colleges was because of limited evidence on the need for specialized supports, the small size of targeted population, and competing priorities (e.g., other developmental education reforms).
  • More than half of colleges continued to allow students to enroll directly into coursework without support. The voluntary nature of the supports and limited information for advisers limited student enrollment.
  • Although more than half of colleges offered adult education and continuing education programs, only 6 percent used them as the primary option for students scoring at the lowest levels. Challenges using these programs included limited cross-department collaboration, lack of student interest in the programs, and limited time and information to allow advisers to discuss career and program options.


  • Although assessment scores have the potential to provide useful information for enhancing advising and instruction, their ability to comprehensively and accurately identify students in need of academic support is limited, and the roll-out of new scores must be accompanied with substantial support for institutions.
  • State resources and guidance can drive the adoption of innovative approaches by community colleges to target additional academic support to students testing at the lowest levels.
  • If states and institutions aim for all students testing at the lowest levels to receive targeted academic support, colleges and students benefit from mandates and consistent messaging.
  • Cross-departmental collaboration and communication are critical to success.
  • More-frequent integration of adult education programs with career and technical education programs (as opposed to academic pathways) might limit accessibility of those programs to students interested in other programs and careers.
  • Targeted academic supports are not the only approach to addressing the needs of students scoring at the lowest levels; many other types of reforms also show promise with this population.

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