Putting Prerequisites into Context: How We Got to Where We Are

Prerequisite Pilot Project Task Force

The Academic Senate is currently embarked on a process to establish pilot projects whereby course prerequisite validation is based primarily on content review, without the need for statistical validation. How these pilot projects will be determined and the form they will take are to be worked out by the Prerequisite Pilot Project Task Force, under the leadership of Executive Committee member Richard Mahon, over the coming months. In the meanwhile, it seems useful to explain how the Academic Senate has arrived at this point with regards to prerequisites and to provide a context for the current activity.

Following on the passage of the Matriculation Act of 1986 (AB3) in 1988, the California Community College System began work on new regulations regarding the implementation and enforcement of matriculation processes, establishing the Matriculation Advisory Committee to assist in that work. In addition, new curricular regulations were proposed regarding the imposition and scrutiny of prerequisites on courses. Owing to concerns over how such regulations would be implemented and the disproportionate effect on select groups of students, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) filed suit in order to compel the system to address its concerns.

As a result of the filing, MALDEF was invited to participate in the process of developing the final regulations in both areas and in 1991 MALDEF dropped its suit against the system.

Among the stipulations of the new matriculation and curricular regulations were:

A requirement that all test instruments used for assessment and as prerequisites be proven as valid, bias-free and reliable

A requirement that matriculation plans include processes for establishing and scrutinizing prerequisites

A requirement that placement decisions be based on multiple measures

The creation of an approved list of assessment instruments

Provision of timely resolution to prerequisite challenges

Evaluation of compliance with matriculation regulations on a statewide basis.

In addition, the following were established:

A Matriculation Assessment Workgroup to provide the review of test instruments for inclusion on the approved test list

The use of site evaluation for compliance with matriculation regulations.

Specific guidelines for the implementation of prerequisites were laid out in The Model District Policy for Prerequisites, Corequisites, Advisories on Recommended Preparation, and Other Limitations on Enrollment (Board of Governors, 1993), which outlined three levels of scrutiny for the establishment of prerequisites. Level one was required for all prerequisites and comprised a rigorous process of content review. In essence, the target course was examined to identify skills that would be necessary upon entry into the course, and these skills were correlated to the skills taught (and presumed learned) in the proposed prerequisite course. Level two applied to sequential courses and equivalent courses already being offered through the CSU or UC. For such courses, the only requirement for the establishment of a prerequisite was content review. Level three was the most rigorous and required for courses with a communication or computation prerequisite that was outside the scope of level two. Here, prerequisite validation required statistical validation.

While the new regulatory requirements made very good sense, the practical implementation revealed significant problems - rather than implement prerequisites, colleges turned increasingly to advisories, which required no validation or content review. Why did this happen? First, many colleges simply lacked the research capacity to carry out the statistical validation required. Second, especially for higher level courses, the limited number of students enrolled meant that it was a problem simply gathering data on a sufficient number of students on which to conduct a statistical analysis. Finally, with the growing influx of under-prepared students, actual classroom practice began to diverge from requirements set out in Course Outlines of Record (COR) with the result that prerequisites could not be validated empirically. And what was the result? Students largely ignored advisories and took whatever courses they wanted to. In some cases, students failed due to inadequate preparation. In others, students wasted their time in courses below their ability level.

As colleges struggled with getting students into the right courses, the number of students requiring basic skills and English as a Second Language coursework grew. In the mid-to-late 2000s, a number of reports were published that addressed the issue of student preparation and the issues of assessment and prerequisites.

Foremost of these reports was the literature review on effective practices in basic skills, Basic Skills as a Foundation for Student Success (Center for Student Success, 2007). In particular, the review cited mandatory assessment as a proven effective practice to communicate to students their need for basic skills coursework (II.1). At roughly the same time, the Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy out of Sacramento State University issued the first of several reports, Rules of the Game (Shulock, 2007). The report states, “Assesssment should be mandatory for degree-seeking students; students with remedial needs should be placed into basic skills courses in their first term. The process for establishing prerequisites should be modified so that colleges can ensure that students have the necessary skills to succeed in their courses” (p. 15). This was later followed by It Could Happen (Shulock, 2008), which directly addressed the issue of prerequisite validation, “The onerous process required to establish course prerequisites leads many colleges to allow open access to courses, resulting in high rates of failure among students who are not prepared to succeed and challenges for instructors who have well-prepared and poorly-prepared students in the same class” (p. 9)

The Board of Governors held a study session on basic skills in March 2007, and following on the System Strategic Plan’s recommendation to develop “methods to more effectively assess student preparedness levels and to place students in appropriate courses,” the Board passed a motion directing the Chancellor to “begin the process of evaluating the implementation of a system-wide uniform, common assessment with multiple measures of all community college students…”.

The Academic Senate took the lead in addressing the Board’s motion and chaired the resultant Consultation Council Task Force on Assessment. The task force issued a report in January 2008 that provided a snapshot of assessment practices throughout the system and made estimates for the cost of implementing “system-wide uniform, common assessment.” The report also made the recommendation that assessment issues such as validation of prerequisites be addressed.

In June 2008, the Legislative Analyst’s Office issued a report concerning the readiness of community college students and made the recommendation that “the Legislature allow colleges to require underprepared students to take pre-collegiate coursework beginning in their first term” (p. 15). This perspective echoed Academic Senate resolution 9.05 from Spring of 2007.

Interim Chancellor Diane Woodruff called for an Action Planning Group (APG) to address the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO) report. Over the course of a year, the APG explored ways to address the LAO’s recommendation, and in consideration of all of the discussion and recommendations that had taken place before, it came to the conclusion that facilitating the validation of prerequisites would provide the best means of signaling to students a route of preparation needed for college work and the motivation to attend to that preparation promptly in order to gain access to college-level courses in their area of interest. This perspective was extensively discussed and debated at the Academic Senate Spring 2009 Plenary Session, and resolutions 9.02 and 9.03 were adopted to support a pilot project to rely primarily on content review for the validation of all prerequisites.

With that, we now arrive at the current day. You now have a context for how we got to where we are. We will keep you apprised of and potentially engaged in the work on the pilot projects in the months to come.


Special thanks to Arnold Bojorquez, Coordinator, Matriculation Unit in the Chancellor’s Office.


Board of Governors. (September 2003). The model district policy for prerequisites, corequisites, advisories on recommended preparation, and other limitations on enrollment. California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office: Sacramento.

California Community College Chancellor’s Office. (May 2009). Strategic plan assessment action planning group (B-2) end-of-year report. Sacramento, CA: Author

Center for Student Success. (February 2007). Basic skills as a foundation for student success in California community colleges. Sacramento, CA: California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office

Consultation Council Task Force on Assessment. (January 2008). Report of the consultation council task force on assessment. California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office: Sacramento.

Hill, E. June 2008. Back to basics: Improving college readiness of community college students. Legislative Analyst’s Office: Sacramento, CA: Author

Moore, C. and Shulock, N. (February 2007). Rules of the game: How state policy creates barriers to degree completion and impedes student success in the California community colleges. Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy. Sacramento, CA: Author.

Shulock, N. , Moore, C., Offenstien, J, and Kirlin, M. (February 2008). It could happen: Unleashing the potential of California’s community colleges to help students succeed and California thrive. Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy. Sacramento, CA: Author.