Creating College-Ready Assessments

Thursday, July 2, 2009Printer-friendly version

As states look to raise high school standards and align them with postsecondary expectations, creating meaningful assessments that signal to students their readiness for postsecondary study - while they are still in high school - is key. And the only way such an assessment can be meaningful to students is if it is also meaningful to higher education institutions. Because of its promise on both these fronts, we have been carefully watching the development and implementation of California's Early Assessment Program (EAP).

The EAP is the result of a partnership between the California State Board of Education, the California Department of Education, and the California State University (CSU) System. These systems worked together to augment the existing California Standards Tests (CSTs), which are administered to all 11th graders, so that they would measure the knowledge and skills CSU faculty members consider essential for success in first-year, credit-bearing courses. The EAP consists of fifteen additional questions and a 45-minute essay added to the CST in English-language arts and fifteen additional questions in mathematics. Students take the EAP portion of the exam on a voluntary basis.

Students who take the EAP receive one of two messages prior to their senior year. With respect to English, if their score exceeds the upper threshold, they are informed that they are "ready for college" and exempt from the CSU placement exam and remedial coursework upon enrollment. Students who score below the threshold are told that they "did not demonstrate college readiness." They are advised about what courses to take their senior year and directed to additional resources to improve their college readiness. The mathematics EAP includes both of these levels and a third, middle level where students are informed that they are "ready for college-conditional," so long as they complete certain mathematics courses during their senior year and receive a grade of "C" or better. CSU has also partnered with school districts in California to implement special curricula and professional development for teachers aimed at serving students in their senior year who need additional support to be ready for college.

The EAP was piloted in 2003, and first offered to all high school juniors in 2004. Participation has grown significantly since then. In 2004, 150,000 high school juniors took the English-language arts assessment and 115,000 juniors took the mathematics assessment. In 2008, 356,169 juniors - or about 76% of all 11th graders taking the state mandated CST exam - voluntarily took the English and/or mathematics EAP.

The big question, of course, is whether the EAP is making a dent in college remediation rates in the nation's largest public postsecondary system - rates that everyone in California agrees are far too high. A new study offers promising signs that the strategy is indeed working.

The study led by Michal Kurlaender, an assistant professor of education at UC Davis, and researchers at California State University, Sacramento and the University of Minnesota, looked at remediation rates at Sacramento State, one of CSU's largest campuses. The researchers found that students participating in the EAP exam in English are, on average, 6.2 percentage points less likely to require remediation compared to similar students who graduated from high school before the EAP was administered. Likewise, students completing the EAP exam in mathematics are, on average, 4.2 percentage points less likely to need remediation. The decline in remediation did not appear to be due to an increase in the number of unprepared students who opted not to apply to college, according to the researchers.

While these results are early and apply only to one campus in the vast CSU system, they suggest a number of lessons for other states to consider as they strive to make college and career readiness the goal for all of their students. First and foremost, states should not overlook the important role state high school assessments can play. They can be a critical signaling device and motivate students to make their senior year more meaningful, but only if they are created with college readiness in mind. Sadly, the vast majority of high school assessments that states administer today are not challenging enough to measure college readiness. States are measuring minimum standards, not college-and career- ready standards.

The California example also reminds us that tests alone are insufficient. The tests in the Early Assessment Program are part of a larger strategy to improve student preparation that includes specialized curricula, teacher training and student supports. It is that larger strategy that all states should be striving for. Download a PDF of the full study: "Postsecondary Preparation and Remediation: Examining the Effect of the Early Assessment Program at California State University." Read more about the EAP in Achieve's Measures that Matter high school assessment report.