College readiness test’s next phase

California’s Early Assessment Program and affiliated efforts to get students college-ready are viewed in national education circles as a rare achievement, a model of K-12 and higher ed collaboration.

The recent naming of one of EAP’s key figures, California State University’s Beverly Young, to the Executive Committee of Smarter Balanced, the multistate group creating the Common Core assessment, is a sign that a new incarnation for EAP may be its ultimate triumph.

EAP is what high school juniors take, as a supplement to their state standardized tests in math and English language arts, to determine if they are college-ready. For those who aren’t, CSU has developed an expository reading and writing course and is developing a course in math for students to take as seniors. A number of states have adopted the reading and writing course for their own students.

“California’s EAP model is the best method currently available in the nation to assess and signal to students their preparedness for college-level coursework, providing them with
an opportunity to correct deficiencies before they enter college,” said a report, “California’s Early Assessment Program: Its Effectiveness and Obstacles to Successful Program Implementation,” which was released this week. It was produced by PACE (Policy Analysis for California Education) and written by Hilary McLean, former communications director for the state Department of Education.

California is a governing member of Smarter Balanced. CSU’s assistant vice chancellor of academic affairs, who’s been involved with EAP since its creation in 2004, will serve as one of two representatives of higher ed on the nine-member Executive Committee.

In announcing Young’s appointment, a Smarter Balanced press release reaffirmed the “goal of having the assessments be accepted indicators of college and career readiness.” Young this week said that she’ll be advocating that an EAP-type approach be incorporated into the 11th grade Common Core test. But she also acknowledged that, conceptual agreement aside, it will be a challenge to persuade colleges and universities from various states, all of which have their own standards for college readiness, to accept the test results. “College faculty will have to be brought in at the front end” of the test development, Young said this week. “Otherwise, they will not accept this.”

PARCC – the other Common Core assessment consortium – has explicitly said it wants to base its college-readiness system on EAP,  and has hired Allison Jones, a former CSU administrator in charge of EAP, to lead its effort.

Reputation exceeds impact

Even in California, EAP is not universally accepted. The University of California has steered clear of it, even though a quarter of its students systemwide need remediation classes in English (UCs don’t label their catch-up classes as remediation, but that’s what they are). And only about half of the state’s 112 community colleges accept EAP as a test for determining whether students are ready for credit-bearing courses.

CSU has invested a lot in EAP. On its dime, it developed the test and pays faculty to grade the 45-minute writing portion of it. It created the writing course and online math and English tutorials. It hired regional EAP coordinators to work with high schools and has trained more than 6,000 high school teachers to lead the writing course.

Still, respect for EAP probably exceeds its impact within California. It’s been a struggle to get students to understand what EAP is and to act on the results. Only 400 of the more than 1,000 high schools in the state offer the year-long expository writing and reading course, Young said.

Participation in EAP has steadily increased to more than 80 percent in English Language Arts. Source: California's Early Assessment Program (Click to enlarge).
Participation in EAP has steadily increased to more than 80 percent in English Language Arts. Source: California's Early Assessment Program (Click to enlarge).

Though voluntary, more than 80 percent of juniors now take the English piece, and nearly 40 percent take the math; fewer take the latter because they have to be enrolled in Algebra II as a junior, because CSU requires three years of math for admission. The test consists of 15 multiple-choice math and English questions, plus the writing piece.

If, as promised, Smarter Balanced’s assessment incorporates more complex short-answer questions and is computer-adaptive, posing questions based on the student’s previous answers, it could improve on EAP. EAP was not intended to be a diagnostic tool, but it could provide more information, particularly for community colleges, on gaps in students’ math knowledge. “The end game now is how to go beyond EAP with the Smarter Balanced assessment,” said PACE Executive Director David Plank.

CSU created EAP with the goal of reducing the number of students needing remediation to 10 percent of entering freshmen. That simply hasn’t happened. The percentage of juniors taking EAP deemed ready for college has edged up slightly to 15 percent in math and 21 percent in English. About two-thirds of entering CSU students still need remediation in either English or math, even though they have a 3.0 grade point average. Researchers estimate that EAP has cut the need for remediation by 6 percent in English and 4 percent in math.

The report listed some of the obstacles:

  • Students don’t understand the scores and what they mean; they assume, based on their grades, they are college-ready.
  • Since they’re part of the state standardized tests, EAP results don’t come back until August, which is late for scheduling the expository writing class;
  • Some high schools remain resistant to the CSU course, preferring to teach literature to seniors;
  • There’s a disconnect: Most high school teachers assume their students are college-ready; far fewer college instructors agree.

The picture may change soon. CSU campuses are adopting the policy that students must complete remediation courses before they arrive for school; that will encourage more to take expository writing and the new math course as high school seniors. Long Beach Unified, as part of its Long Beach Promise, requires students who don’t pass EAP to take the writing course. The year-long math course that Long Beach is piloting will go statewide this fall.

Starting this fall, Young said, students who test proficient on their standardized English language arts test and take the year-long expository writing course with a C or better will be designated college-ready in English.

“EAP has not proven a panacea,” said Plank. “Its primary value is the signal it sends to students to be ready for college. As the signal strengthens, impact on student outcomes will increase also.”

Author: John Fensterwald - Educated Guess

John Fensterwald, a journalist at the Silicon Valley Education Foundation, edits and co-writes "Thoughts on Public Education in California" (www.TOPed.org), one of the leading sources of California education policy reporting and opinion, which he founded in 2009. For 11 years before that, John wrote editorials for the Mercury News in San Jose, with a focus on education. He worked as a reporter, news editor and opinion editor for three newspapers in New Hampshire for two decades before receiving a Knight Fellowship at Stanford University in 1997 and heading West shortly thereafter. His wife is an elementary school teacher and his daughter attends the University California at Davis.

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