Test scores indicate more students ‘college ready’ in English language arts

September 28, 2015

This story was updated on Oct. 14, 2015.

The recently released Common Core-aligned test results show the percentage of California high school students identified as ready, or on pace to be ready by the time they graduate, for college-level English coursework increased.

The Smarter Balanced assessments for English language arts and math, administered to almost 420,000 juniors in California this past spring, now serve as the main tool for California State University and nearly 80 community colleges statewide for measuring student readiness in those subjects.

Students who “exceed the standard” defined by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, which devised the test, are considered ready for college-level courses, including courses that provide credits toward degrees. Students who “meet the standard” are considered “conditionally ready,” which means they’re on track to be ready by the end of their senior year in high school.

These Smarter Balanced assessments this year replaced the previous test given as part of the California State University’s Early Assessment Program, often referred to simply as EAP. It is a program designed to identify whether high school juniors are on track to be able to take credit-bearing courses in math and English language arts. How juniors perform on the tests can decide whether students can take credit-bearing college-level math or English courses as freshmen, or if they need to take placement tests to determine whether they need remedial courses.

About 56 percent of high school juniors met or exceeded the standard in English language arts as defined by the Smarter Balanced assessment. That was a substantial increase over the 40 percent of juniors last year who reached the college ready or “conditionally ready” levels under the Early Assessment Program.

However, a significantly smaller percentage of students – 29 percent – met or exceeded the standard in math. Last year 51 percent reached the college ready or “conditionally ready” levels.  

But the lower number of students deemed college ready on math based on this year’s tests compared to the previous year is misleading. That’s because in previous years only students who had taken Algebra II were eligible to take the Early Assessment Program test. By contrast, all 11th-grade students were eligible to take the Smarter Balanced tests.

In 2013, the last year for which full data are available under the old test, just over half of 11th-graders were eligible to take the Early Assessment Program test. Of those who took the test, 60 percent did well enough to be deemed college ready or conditionally ready.

But as a percentage of the entire junior class, that year only 27 percent were deemed college ready or conditionally ready. That is close to the 29 percent deemed to have “met or exceeded the standards” on the Smarter Balanced tests students took in 2015.

Students may have struggled with the math test because the new Common Core-aligned math standard is more difficult than what students are used to, said Carolina Cardenas, CSU’s director of academic outreach and early assessment. Across all grade levels, math scores were significantly lower than English scores on the Smarter Balanced assessments.

“Schools have transitioned to a brand new math curriculum,” Cardenas said. “These juniors are also getting used to a brand new test they’ve not taken before.”

Deb Sigman, deputy director of assessment at WestEd and former national chair of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium Executive Committee, said these new exams provide California’s most reliable measurement to date of college readiness among high school students.

“The process for developing the tests was extraordinarily rigorous,” she said. “We had high school instructors coming together with higher ed faculty to determine where we wanted our students to be.”

A new measurement

The 23-campus CSU created the Early Assessment Program a decade ago in an effort to reduce the number of incoming freshman who were required to enroll in remedial math or English coursework. The program serves as an early warning system that gives unprepared students an opportunity to address academic deficiencies while in high school.

Until last year, the Early Assessment Program was voluntary, with the students participating primarily those considering applying to a CSU campus. The previous 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 questions that CSU developed.

The Early Assessment Program is now based completely on Smarter Balanced scores. The Common Core-aligned tests are required for all 11th graders, unless their parents give them permission to opt out of taking the test.

Going forward, CSU and state officials plan to measure all juniors for college readiness as part of the shift to the Common Core State Standards, which list as a primary goal preparing more students for college and careers.

The Smarter Balanced tests, developed by a consortium that includes 18 states, are now used by 200 colleges and universities nationally to help determine if high school students are prepared for college-level coursework.

Keric Ashley, the state Department of Education’s deputy superintendent of public instruction, said state officials have yet to analyze the data on 11th graders and therefore could not comment on what the results showed about those students’ level of college readiness.

Meanwhile, state Superintendent Tom Torlakson has continued to caution against comparing any Smarter Balanced Assessment scores, including 11th-grade results, with those from previous standardized tests, instead saying this year’s scores should only serve as a baseline going forward.

Defining college readiness

Scores on the Smarter Balanced assessments fall into one of four achievement levels, ranging from Level 1, or “standard not met,” to Level 4, “standard exceeded.”

Students who score at Level 4 will be exempt from having to take English or math placement tests after they gain admission to a California State University campus. The University of California, with different admissions requirements, does not use the Early Assessment Program to assess students’ readiness for college-level work. 

Those who score at Level 3 are deemed “conditionally ready” and will be encouraged to take an approved English class, including the CSU-designed Expository Reading and Writing, or math class above Algebra II in their high school senior year and earn a grade of C or higher to become exempt from having to take placement tests.

Students who score at Level 1 or 2 are considered not to be on track to take college-level courses and would be required to take English or math placement tests if they gain admission to a CSU campus. (Students who do well on SAT, ACT or Advanced Placement tests or pass AP or International Baccalaureate courses by their senior year are considered ready for college-level work regardless of their Smarter Balanced scores.)

In two-thirds of the state’s community colleges, how students do on the 11th-grade Smarter Balanced test will also help determine if they will be required to first take English or math placement tests, or if they can directly enroll in credit-bearing math or English courses.

Differences in English and math scores

Some educators had expected a higher percentage of juniors to struggle with both sections of the new tests because they were designed to be more rigorous than the previous tests.

But that was not the case on the English language arts portion of the test.

Cardenas said the increase in the percentage of high school juniors identified as ready or on pace to be ready for college-level courses in English language arts could be due to a CSU initiative that has trained high school English teachers to prepare more students for college-level work.

For the past decade, nearly 11,000 English teachers in 700 schools in grades 7 through 12 have participated in CSU’s Expository Reading and Writing Course. The program offers training to help teachers develop students’ proficiency in expository, analytical and argumentative reading and writing, the same skills required by Smarter Balanced tests, Cardenas said.

The program “is perfectly aligned with the new California standards, so it lends itself nicely to the new curriculum and testing mechanisms,” Cardenas said. “We’re quite happy to see the numbers go up significantly on the English side.”

Sigman, the state’s former deputy state superintendent of public instruction, said the unexpected growth in the percentage of juniors who met or exceeded standards in English is “a good problem to have.”

She said she believes the scores show high school students were more successful in making the transition to the Common Core-aligned English language arts curriculum than students in earlier grades.

Ed Sullivan, the assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs for the CSU, said the math results aren’t necessarily cause for alarm from CSU’s perspective. According to the state’s Master Plan for Higher Education, CSU is supposed to admit students ranked in the top third of their graduating class.

Sullivan noted that based on their performance on the Smarter Balanced tests, close to one-third of high school juniors – 29 percent – were deemed to be college ready or on track to be ready by the time they graduate from high school.

“The important thing I saw is that more students are being tested, far more than what we’ve had historically,” he said.

Caroline Rodriguez, a career counselor in Los Angeles, said she encouraged all juniors this spring to prepare for the tests because of the valuable information it could provide about their level of college readiness.

“Even if you’re not sure you want to go to college, it’s important to know where your abilities are,” she said. “That’s what makes this exam more relevant for students than a lot of other standardized tests they have to take.”

Editor’s Note: This story was updated to indicate that comparing college readiness rates based on the previous Early Assessment Program with those based on the current EAP is misleading because only students who were more advanced in math preparation took the earlier test.

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