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Investigating the Alignment of High School and Community College Assessments in California


The National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education undertook a study to determine the de facto standards, or the knowledge and skills required to successfully enroll in college-level classes at California community colleges. While California community colleges are open to all students eligible and able to benefit, most students must demonstrate that they are ready for college-level academic work by passing the collegeís placement exam once they enroll. Because California does not explicitly define college readiness standards for high school students, the placement exams function as the de facto entry-level standards for higher education. The community colleges have academic standards; high schools, teachers, students, and parents have just not been clearly informed of them.

Based on their performance on the placement tests, the vast majority of students enrolling in a community college need remedial coursework in math and nearly half of them need it in English.

Over 94 different placement assessments were given to entering students last year at the community colleges. This study identifies the standards represented by the myriad placement tests in English language arts and mathematics. It then compares these standards to what high school students are expected to know in the 11th grade in order to determine if what we are expecting in high school matches what students need to know to take creditbearing courses at the community college. This issue is critical for high school students, since the vast majority of students pursuing higher education in California will begin at a community college. It is also critical for California, since the future workforce depends upon the success of community colleges in educating these students.

The importance of this issue is reinforced by a recent national report by Achieve, Inc., Aligned Expectations? A Closer Look at College Admissions and Placement Tests, which concludes that the alignment of high school coursework and assessments with those in higher education is a necessary step in preparing more students to successfully enroll in and complete certifi cate and degree programs. In fact, the findings of the Brown and Niemi study described in this report and the subsequent recommendations by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education point to the importance of linking higher education placement exams to high standards and assessments of high school students in math and English language arts.

The National Center is indebted to Richard Brown and David Niemi for their leadership and analysis of this important issue. We are also grateful to our lead advisors on this project: Michael Kirst, senior fellow at the National Center and professor of education at Stanford University, and Peter Ewell, vice president at the National Center for Higher Education Management Systems. The National Center is also grateful to the College Board and ACT who shared their test blueprints with the National Center for this analysis. We are also grateful to the California Community Colleges Chancellorís Office and to the California Department of Education for information made available to complete this analysis.

Also contributing their insight into our analysis was a national advisory group made up of the following: chair of the advisory group, Michael Usdan, senior fellow, National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and senior fellow at the Institute for Educational Leadership; Steve Bruckman, executive vice chancellor, California Community Colleges; Andrea Conklin Bueschel, research scholar, The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching; Pamela Burdman, program offi cer, Education, The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; Peter T. Ewell, vice president, National Center for Higher Education Management Systems; Marlene L. Garcia, vice chancellor of governmental relations and external affairs division, California Community Colleges; Robert H. McCabe, senior fellow, League for Innovation in the Community College; Brad Phillips, executive director, Cal-PASS; Anna Rothman, fellow, Senate Office of Research, California Legislature; Nancy Shapiro, associate vice chancellor, University System of Maryland; Nancy Shulock, executive director, Institute for Higher Education Leadership and Policy, California State University, Sacramento; and Abdi Soltani, executive director, Campaign for College Opportunity.

And contributing from the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education were Jonathan Felder, policy analyst; Valerie Lucas, assistant to the vice president; and Mikyung Ryu, senior policy analyst.

Many community college leaders also assisted Brown and Niemi in their evaluation of the placement exams. They include: Daniel Bahner, title V activity director/student interventions, Crafton Hills College; Kirk Gorrie, associate faculty member, Irvine Valley College; Valerie Henry, lecturer,

University of California, Irvine; Keith Howard, assistant professor, Rossier School of Education, University of Southern California; Mickey Jackson, professor emeritus, Golden West Community College; Micah Jendian, English instructor, Grossmont College; Leanne Maunu, associate professor, Palomar College; Tim Thayer, math teacher, Mira Loma High School/San Juan Unified School District; and Julio Villarreal, former instructor, San Diego City College.

The National Center would like to thank The James Irvine Foundation for sponsoring this special project. We welcome the reactions of readers to this report.

Patrick M. Callan    Joni E. Finney
President    Vice President


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