In 2013, as in many other states, the Maryland Legislature passed SB 740, with the main focus on improving college readiness among high school students and college completion among college students.
Having followed events in Connecticut quite closely, I am of mixed feelings about this tendency of state legislatures. Too often, with the best of intentions, these legislative bodies enact laws that are misguided. On the other hand, higher education has been extremely slow to take action. We have known for years that developmental education was not having the kinds of results those of us working in the field were hoping for. Study after study has revealed that an overwhelming number of developmental students never pass the credit-level course for which they are being “developed.” And yet, too often we have done very little to rethink developmental education . . . until pressed by state legislatures.
Too often the result is legislatures, with their limited understanding of the issues involved, pass laws that are misguided. Maryland’s SB 740, for example, requires that all high school students pass Algebra 2. This algebra emphasis seems uniformed by the important work being done by the Carnegie Foundation and the Dana Center at University of Texas to develop math patterns aimed at other forms of math, such as statistics, that are taken by far more students than algebra.
Another example of a well-intentioned requirement that reflects a lack of expertise, SB 740 requires that “no later than grade 11, all students must be assessed for college readiness using acceptable college placement cut scores.” The reference to “acceptable cut scores” seems to imply reliance on tests like Accuplacer and Compass at a time when the education establishment had accepted the inaccuracy of these tests and the need for multiple measures of readiness.
The Common Core State Standards refer repeatedly to students being “college and career ready,” although it has never been clear whether this phrase refers to one set of standards or two. Is “college readiness” the same as “career readiness” or are these two different standards?
SB 740 seems to ignore this ambiguity by referring only to students being “college ready.”
Despite the weaknesses described above, SB 740 includes a number of positive provisions. Coursework to help students become college ready is strengthened. Transfer from community colleges to universities is improved. College students are required to develop “degree plans.” And there is pressure on colleges and universities to require no more than 60 credits for an AA degree and 120 credits for a BA or BS.
Maryland’s SB 740 is part of a national trend for legislatures to become more heavy handed in their involvement with education. While not as dramatic as recent legislation in Florida and Connecticut, this law includes several provisions that reveal the problem when legislatures micromanage higher education. To reduce the likelihood of more such legislation being passed, higher education needs to take more responsibility for improving itself, for addressing problems before they come to the attention of legislatures.