College Readiness

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Since underprepared students experience numerous obstacles to academic achievement, it is important to place academic skills assessment in a broader context of college readiness. One recent and influential model of college readiness, proposed by Conley, is discussed here in order to place the study in context. About his model comprises four interacting components that are proposed to affect students’ ability to lead well in a postsecondary setting. Each component consists in turn of multiple subcomponents, many of which have been recognized as important by college English instructors.



At the heart of Conley’s model is the “key cognitive strategies” component or the work habits that support student learning. Key cognitive strategies include intellectual curiosity, an interest in inquiry, the ability to analyze and synthesize information, an understanding of the level of precision and accuracy needed to perform academic tasks, and the ability to solve problems.

A second component in the model is “key content,” which covers the academic content knowledge and basic reading, writing, and math skills. Conley identifies writing skill as being of central importance to this component of college readiness, especially because writing forms the basis of many assessments of knowledge in post-secondary courses: “Expository, descriptive, and persuasive writing are particularly important types of writing in college. Students are expected to write a lot in college and to do so in relatively short periods of time,” and the writing should display competent grammar, spelling, and use of language. Besides writing ability, skills in research, reading comprehension, and math, as well as disciplinary content knowledge, feature in this second component.

Interacting with key cognitive strategies and key content is a third component, “academic behaviors,” which signifies students’ ability to reflect on, monitor, and control their own performance. Also called metacognition, this component of college readiness covers understanding one’s own level of mastery of a skill — for example, through assessing one’s self-efficacy — willingness to persist in difficult tasks, and an understanding of how to transfer skills to a new context.

The final component in Conley’s college readiness model is “contextual skills and awareness,” or a student’s knowledge of the nature of college as an institution. This includes understanding academic norms and expectations as well as specific knowledge, such as of admissions, placement testing, and financial aid procedures.


The effectiveness of developmental education in promoting college readiness has been questioned in recent research. Given the broad range of skills and behaviors required for college readiness, as detailed by Conley’s model, and the multiple social and educational needs of low-achieving students, it is difficult to pinpoint the causes of this problem. However, inadequacies in assessment methods used for course placement, course structure (including multi-course sequences requiring lengthy participation), and instructional approaches have been identified as contributing to low achievement rates. If instructional improvements are to contribute to the effectiveness of developmental education, assessment methods will be of critical importance. Assessment and instruction are intertwined, and the design of effective instruction depends on detailed knowledge of students’ academic skills. The current study focuses on Conley’s second component, key content, in its interest in assessing developmental education students’ reading and writing skills in order to gauge their level of college readiness.

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