Early assessment: Does it work?

California’s Early Assessment Program tests 11th graders’ college readiness, giving them time to improve senior year to avoid remedial classes. It sounds like a great idea.  But does it work? That’s hard to say, writes Education Week.

EAP adds optional questions to the state exam 11th graders have to take anyhow. Those who do well can go straight to college-level classes at 48 community colleges and all California State University campuses. For the unready, EAP has designed catch-up courses and training for teachers. K-12 teachers worked with CSU professors to define college-level mastery.

Two groups of states are collaborating to design new tests for the Common Core standards, which are supposed to measure college and career readiness.

Leaders of those efforts cite the EAP as a model as they endeavor to fold elements of it into work they hope will ultimately make college remediation unnecessary: aligning K-12 study and tests to college expectations, creating a feedback loop to inform learning, and providing supports to students and teachers.

Since EAP’s debut in 2004, the proportion of students who test as college-ready in English and math has risen slowly.  However, “the vast majority still fall short of the mark,” Education Week notes.

There are early signs that it reduces the need for college remediation: A 2009 study by Michal Kurlaender, a researcher at the University of California, Davis, found that students at one California State University campus who had taken the EAP—regardless of their scores—were 4 percentage points to 6 percentage points less likely to require remediation than those who hadn’t. The test likely prompts students to “buckle down” harder in 12th grade, Ms. Kurlaender said in an interview.

CSU, which trains most of the state’s teachers, has “embedded the EAP’s ideas into preservice teacher education,” notes Ed Week.  High school English and math teachers can take EAP courses online or in person.

But not all high schools offer seniors the prep classes designed by EAP.

CSU studies show that schools that fully implement the Expository Reading and Writing Course, which was designed to bolster instruction for students who fall short of the EAP’s English-readiness mark, improve on the state’s 11th grade test twice as fast as schools that don’t, and students who take it have a better chance of passing the university system’s own placement tests.

In CSU surveys, teachers rave about the course for its power to spark top-notch work from both students and teachers. Of California’s 1,400 public high schools, 376 have fully implemented the course; others use some of its modules.

Nonetheless, CSU remediation rates remain very high considering that students are supposed to come from the top third of high school graduates. Most first-year students had a B average in high school; all took a college-prep sequence of courses.   Yet 49 percent must take remedial English, and 38 percent must take remedial math.

Many students don’t understand that they’ve failed EAP, much less what to do about it, warns William G. Tierney, a USC education professor.  In a small study, 40 percent of students didn’t remember taking the EAP and more than 75 percent who failed did nothing to catch up in 12th grade.

Others say the EAP’s warning doesn’t come soon enough.

By the time students get the news that they are not college-ready—when they’re rising seniors—it’s often too late to rearrange their class schedules. Many students, also, are too far short of the mark to catch up in just one year.

Research shows that students who test below “proficient” in fourth grade have only a 3 percent chance of testing as college ready in 11th grade. CSU is looking for ways to create much earlier early-warning indicators.

Community colleges began accepting EAP results in place of their own placement tests in 2008, though less than half of the state’s colleges participate.

In an attempt to “mirror what the CSU is expecting” of transfer students, the community colleges are using the same EAP cutoff score that the university system uses, said Sonia Ortiz-Mercado, the community college system’s dean for matriculation and early assessment. Most high school students don’t think they need to prepare well for community college, she said, so using the same readiness score as the university system sends “a stronger signal that they do.”

The community college system may fine-tune its use of EAP scores to distinguish between students at different remedial levels.

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