The number of 11th-graders who are judged ready for college-level coursework or are on track to become ready climbed slightly compared with last year, results from the state’s latest Common Core-aligned tests show.
Fifty-nine percent of high school juniors met or exceeded testing targets in English on the Smarter Balanced assessments given in spring 2016, while 33 percent met or exceeded targets in math.
In English, that’s an improvement of 3 percentage points over the previous year. In math, juniors recorded a 4-percentage point gain. These 11th-grade results mirror scores for students across all grade levels tested, with moderate growth recorded in the second year of Smarter Balanced testing.
The latest scores, released Wednesday, place students within one of four achievement levels: “standard exceeded,” “standard met,” “standard nearly met” or “standard not met.”
The tests can carry the most real-world consequences for college-bound juniors. The Smarter Balanced assessments, administered to almost 434,000 juniors in California, serve as the main tool for California State University and nearly 80 community colleges statewide for measuring student readiness in math and English. (The University of California does not use Smarter Balanced tests to measure college readiness.) How they perform can help decide whether they 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.
“These scores show we’re moving in the right direction,” said Carolina Cardenas, director of academic outreach and early assessment for the 23-campus CSU system.
The tests are part of CSU’s Early Assessment Program, an initiative launched 12 years ago aimed at decreasing the number of students requiring remedial courses when they start college.
Nationally, more than 200 colleges and universities now use Smarter Balanced tests to measure college readiness.
“We maintain that the more students are exposed to these exams and the Common Core standards, the more scores will continue to improve year over year,” Cardenas said. “That will lead to more students prepared on day one for rigorous college courses.”
In English, about 26 percent of juniors “exceeded” the standard. These students are now eligible for credit-bearing English courses their freshman year.
About 33 percent reached the second-highest level, or “met” the standard. These students are deemed conditionally ready for college-level English courses. They are now encouraged to take an approved English class in their senior year, including the CSU-designed Expository Reading and Writing, to become eligible for credit-bearing English courses as college freshman.
“We maintain that the more students are exposed to these exams and the Common Core standards, the more scores will continue to improve year over year. That will lead to more students prepared on day one for rigorous college courses,” Carolina Cardenas, CSU’s director of academic outreach and early assessment.
In math, the scores were significantly lower than in English, with about 13 percent of juniors exceeding the standard, meaning they’re eligible for credit-bearing math courses their freshman year of college. About 20 percent of 11th-graders met the math standard. These students could become college ready if they pass a course higher than Algebra II before they graduate.
Students who failed to meet or exceed the standard in math and English are considered not to be on track to take college-level courses and would be required to take English or math placement tests to determine if they need to enroll in remedial courses 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.
Statewide, more 11th-graders failed to meet the math standard than all other students tested.
But educators and state officials have said the gap between math and English scores is to be expected, considering what the test was designed to measure and how the Common Core standards have been implemented at the high school level.
“Students take English each year they’re enrolled in school, creating a continuity throughout,” Cardenas said. “In math, especially in high school, students are often at different levels, or enrolled in different courses, but they’re all expected to take the same test.”
The previous California Standards tests in math were given to students by the course they were enrolled in. For example, students in Algebra I took the Algebra I test, geometry students took the geometry test, and so on. With Smarter Balanced tests, 11th-graders might be asked questions from coursework they’ve not yet studied, or questions from coursework learned one or two years earlier.
Additionally, districts in California can choose between two models of Common Core math instruction in high school. Districts can continue with the traditional course sequence of Algebra 1, geometry, Algebra 2, pre calculus, and in some schools, calculus. Or, they can move to an integrated mathematics pathway, in which students learn a blend of topics like algebra, geometry and statistics each year.
That means the 11th-grade Smarter Balanced math test is not always measuring how each student is learning math in the classroom.
In Los Angeles Unified, the state’s largest district, 54 percent of juniors met or exceeded the standard in English, an increase of 6 percentage points compared to the previous year. In math, 25 percent met or exceeded the standard, up 5 percentage points from 2015.
“We’re optimistic that our trajectory is going the right way,” said Frances Gipson, the district’s chief academic officer.
Gipson said that ongoing district initiatives, including a requirement to have all high school students complete the coursework required for admission into UC and CSU, and a movement to have more students concurrently enroll in college courses through partnerships with community colleges, will lead to higher test scores in coming years.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson said that despite some of the initial challenges, he also expects the number of college-ready students to continue increasing as educators and students become more comfortable with the curriculum and exams.
“We are making progress towards upgrading our education system to prepare all students for careers and college in the 21st century,” Torlakson said in a news release. “Of course there’s more work to do, but our system has momentum.”