New tests to tell juniors if they’re college-ready

March 29, 2015

This is a transition year for the California State University’s Early Assessment Program, a decade-old early warning system that tells 11th-graders whether they are prepared for college-level work – and steps they should take if they’re not. Caught in the switch to a new test and new academic standards, more juniors may be told that they’re not yet ready.

Until this year, the Early Assessment Program’s test consisted of a combination of questions on the old 11th-grade California Standards Tests, plus a writing sample and 30 additional math and English language arts problems that CSU developed.

With the transition to the Common Core, California education officials pushed to replace the EAP test with the new Smarter Balanced tests to provide a common set of college readiness measurements that all member states of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium could use. The other states agreed with this approach.

“EAP is now the model for the rest of the country,” said Beverly Young, CSU’s assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs. “The form of the assessment is changing, but the structure of the program is the same.”

Credit: John Osborn / EdSource

The green bands show the percentages of high school juniors designated  ready or conditionally ready for college courses two years ago on the EAP tests in English and math. The purple and blue bands show students nationwide who took the practice or field test last year on the Smarter Balanced tests who also would have been conditionally ready or college-ready. Based on the results, CSU expects more students will need extra work in writing and expository reading as seniors to avoid remedial classes in their freshman year of college. Since only advanced math students took the EAP test, while all juniors will take the Smarter Balanced math test, CSU cautions against comparing the EAP and Smarter Balanced math results.

However, CSU is anticipating that many high school juniors planning to attend one of its campuses won’t score as high this year on the new Smarter Balanced tests in English language arts and math as students did on the former Early Assessment Program test. As a result, CSU will be strongly encouraging more of them to spend their senior year taking a special writing class or other challenging English and math courses in order to avoid spending hundreds of dollars on remedial courses as college freshmen.

“There will be a period of transition from the old EAP to the alignment with Smarter Balanced,” said Ed Sullivan, the assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs for the CSU System. “There may be an uptick” of those students who’ll be asked to improve academic skills as seniors, he said, so that they’re in a better position to succeed in college.

More than 70 of the state’s community colleges have also fully or partially adopted the Early Assessment Program test as a basis for determining readiness for college work. The University of California, with different admissions criteria and fewer students taking remedial courses, hasn’t adopted the EAP.

All of the heads of California’s higher education system, including CSU Chancellor Timothy White, strongly endorsed the Common Core State Standards and expressed confidence that the new standards will better prepare students for college, reducing the need for catch-up courses.

“We believe California’s implementation of the Common Core standards and aligned assessments has the potential to dramatically improve college readiness and help close the preparation gap that exists for California students,” they wrote in a letter last year.

Educators also recognize that it will take time to make that difference.

With the Common Core’s emphasis on mastery of complex non-fiction texts, the ability to explain solutions to math problems and a focus on writing, the new Smarter Balanced online tests are significantly different from California’s former pencil-and-paper tests. They also probably will be tougher – at least initially, until students have been taught extensively in the new standards. Many high school juniors have had little exposure to the Common Core standards – a year or two at most through their courses.

Predictions of lower college readiness scores on the Smarter Balanced tests are why CSU officials are asking high schools to be prepared to accommodate more students requesting extra help next year.

While all 11th-graders will be required take the Smarter Balanced tests, the Early Assessment Program was voluntary under the old state standards. In 2013, nearly 90 percent of students who took the 11th-grade English language arts test also took the additional EAP questions. Of those, 23 percent did well enough on the English language arts portion to be deemed college-ready (see chart); they were exempt from having to take a diagnostic readiness exam for placement in college credit courses as freshmen.

An additional 15 percent were “conditionally ready.” They too would not have to take the placement exam if, as seniors, they got a C or better on a CSU-designed class called the Expository Reading and Writing Course, which is offered by about 400 high schools. If they passed an honors or Advanced Placement course in English or scored high enough on the SAT or ACT exams, they also could be deemed college-ready by the time they graduated.

The remaining 63 percent of students were classified as not on track for college credit courses in CSU and those community colleges that use the EAP. If they planned to attend or transfer to a CSU campus, they too were encouraged to take the CSU writing course, although they would still have to take a diagnostic test as freshmen to see if they needed a remedial course.

Predictions of lower college readiness scores on the Smarter Balanced tests are why CSU officials are asking high schools to be prepared to accommodate more students requesting extra help next year.

The Smarter Balanced 11th-grade tests, which California and 12 other states will give, have been designed with college readiness in mind. Students’ scores will fall into one of four performance levels. Level 4 will be the equivalent of college-ready and Level 3 will be equal to, by CSU’s definition, conditionally ready. The performance level “cut scores” were set last fall by panels of educators based on their judgment of the knowledge students should show to qualify for partial or full college readiness. Using sample results of the Smarter Balanced practice test that students took a year ago, state officials in the consortium modified the panels’ recommendations.

Smarter Balanced officials used the practice or “field test” results to project that only 11 percent of students would score at Level 4 on the 11th-grade English language arts test. That would be less than half of the students who qualified in 2013 under the Early Assessment Program. An additional 30 percent were projected to be conditionally ready, twice the number classified in 2013 under the old Early Assessment Program.

Anticipating there will be more conditionally ready students than in the past, CSU is asking school districts to add extra sessions of the expository writing course next year, Young said.

The remaining 61 percent of students were projected to fall in the bottom two levels on the English language arts test, classified as not on track for college work. If they plan to apply to or transfer to a CSU campus, they too will be encouraged to take the writing course, though they would still have to take a CSU or community college placement test as freshmen.

A different case with math

CSU cautions against reading too much into Smarter Balanced’s nationwide projections on the 11th-grade test in math. Many of those taking the new test in California and elsewhere will be taking Algebra I or Geometry at the time. Under the old Early Assessment Program, only more advanced math students – juniors taking at least Algebra II or higher – were eligible to take the EAP, since Algebra II is a requirement for admission and transfer to CSU.

In 2013, 14 percent of juniors who took the Early Assessment Program math test were designated ready for college-level math courses, while 46 percent were conditionally ready. If the conditionally ready students passed a special CSU-designed online math course or a higher-level high school math course as seniors, they too would be designated as college ready. The remaining 40 percent of students scored not ready for college-level math.

By comparison, the assessment consortium predicted that only a third would score at Levels 3 or 4, which CSU defines as ready and conditionally ready. Two-thirds were expected to be in the bottom two levels and classified as not on track.

Both Young and Debra Sigman, the former deputy state superintendent of public instruction who serves with Young on Smarter Balanced’s executive committee, expressed confidence that more California students than the national average, especially those planning to attend CSU, will reach Level 3. Because of the EAP and the Algebra II math requirement for admission to CSU, California students are used to taking standardized tests that indicated college readiness, and more enroll in higher-level math courses, they said.

Sullivan said that building college readiness signals into the Smarter Balanced tests has an extra advantage: opening horizons for students. Under the voluntary EAP, some students who didn’t consider themselves capable of attending a four-year university didn’t take the test. Now, Sullivan said, they may discover that, with some additional courses in their senior year, they could qualify.

Adjustments possible

Critics have questioned the methodology in which Smarter Balanced set the four levels of achievement on the math and English tests. Officials relied in part on the results of a practice, or field, test that students took a year ago. This was a tryout exercise that didn’t match real test conditions and therefore produced unreliable results, Doug McRae, a retired test specialist, argued in an EdSource column. McRae called it irresponsible for the consortium to release student test scores before achievement levels have been validated.

Sigman acknowledged that it is possible that the achievement levels may have to be adjusted this summer, based on this spring’s Smarter Balanced test results. Any changes could affect whether some students are classified as ready or conditionally ready for college credit courses. But she predicted that the impact would be minor, and noted that students will have other options – including high SAT and ACT scores and completion of high-level courses – to obtain a waiver from remedial courses. They can also be exempted by doing well on the math and English CSU diagnostic tests that they would take before starting their freshman year.

Most students will benefit from taking higher-level work as seniors, and the reconstituted EAP continues to serve that purpose, Young said. “We need to find the sweet spot; we don’t want to set the level too high or too low for remediation.”

When CSU introduced the EAP in 2004, two-thirds of freshmen in the 23-campus system needed a non-credit remedial course in English, math or both. These are students who had passed the 15 year-long courses, called A to G, required for admittance to CSU and UC and had a B average in high school.

The EAP, which encouraged students to make better use of their senior year, and Early Start, a more recent initiative that requires students to start remedial courses at a CSU campus the summer before they enter college, is paying off, Chancellor White told CSU trustees last week. Fifty-nine percent of the entering class in 2014 were college-ready in math and English ­– making them CSU’s best prepared class since the system began testing incoming students, he said.

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