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Central Questions

Are high school juniors academically prepared to succeed in certificate and degree programs at a community college? Do the high school exams taken by students match the academic rigor of the community college placement exams that determine if students are academically prepared for college- level work?

Why K–12 and Community College Math and English Standards and Tests Matter

How well does high school prepare students to undertake college-level work? If students are not taught or assessed for college readiness in math and English, can they be expected to succeed at community colleges? In the absence of explicit college readiness standards in English and math, how will high school teachers know if students are prepared?

Key Findings

In English language arts, the placement exams given by the California community colleges that were the most common standardized tests and the tests given to high school juniors are fairly well matched in terms of academic rigor. In other words, students who score well on the high school exam in English should be academically prepared for their credential and degree programs at a California community college.

In math, however, there are substantial gaps between the high school exams and the community college placement tests. In other words, students who take and score well on the high school exams in math might not be fully prepared for the academic rigor of math classes taught in their certifi cate or degree programs at a community college.

Key Recommendations

Education and policy leaders in California should develop a statewide approach to community college placement so that all high school students receive clear signals about what it takes to succeed at a California community college.

MIXED SIGNALS IN CALIFORNIA

A MISMATCH BETWEEN HIGH SCHOOLS AND COMMUNITY COLLEGES

INTRODUCTION


Many students who enroll in California's community colleges are not academically prepared to undertake college-level courses that would be counted toward a bachelor's degree at a four-year college. The consequences include:
High proportions of students start out in remedial levels of math and reading courses and have limited probability of attempting transfer- level courses at community colleges.
The majority of first-time students start out in mathematics and reading courses for which they will not receive credit at a California State University or University of California campus if and when they choose to transfer.
One out of every three students in a California community college enrolls in a basic skills class, and many more place into basic skills courses on the basis of assessment results but elect not to enroll in them.

Better alignment of high school coursework and assessment could greatly reduce the need for remedial education in California community colleges. It could also improve rates of transfer, and associate's and bachelor's degree completion. This would, however, require that the content taught by high schools, and the tests used by high schools to assess student mastery of that content, encompass and emphasize the knowledge and skills required for college- level work. This report is derived from a 2007 research study by Richard S. Brown and David N. Niemi1 which analyzed one key aspect of that issue: the alignment of the content tested in California's junior year high school examinations with that of placement tests used by community colleges to determine student readiness for college-level work in math and English.

The open admissions policy of the California Community Colleges system provides only for admission to the colleges—not necessarily to college-level courses. Once students enroll in the colleges, placement tests assess their readiness to undertake college- level coursework, or their need for remedial courses. Studies have demonstrated that high school graduates who intend to engage in collegiate work for transfer or to earn bachelor's degrees should have acquired the knowledge and skills assessed by placement tests while they were in high school.

A core question, then, is whether high schools and community colleges share a common understanding of the knowledge and skills required for college-level courses.

It is reasonable to expect that such understandings would be reflected in the testing and assessment practices of high schools and community colleges, so that success in mastering the requisite content at one level—high school—would prepare students for the next level—the community colleges.

Alignment or consistency of high school and college expectations through examinations is a key condition for making standards of knowledge and skills required for college readiness explicit. Aligned high school and college placement assessments can help provide clarity to high schools and teachers about what must be taught, and to high school students and parents about what must be learned. Poor alignment contributes to confusion about expectations for college-level coursework, to poor college preparation, and to the need for remediation.

Although California high schools administer statewide assessments, each of the 109 community college campuses determines for itself which placement exams to use, subject to approval by the state Chancellor's Office. The Chancellor's Office Web site reports that 94 assessments were administered to students in the 2005–06 academic year, and more are on the list approved by the Chancellor's Office for use as placement instruments. In their research study, Brown and Niemi observed:

    This reflects the tremendous variability of placement testing practices. Three dozen second- party assessments gained approval, while more than 100 other approved tests are listed as "locally developed and locally managed assessment instruments." Such variety yields inconsistency throughout the community college system not only in test content but also in levels of expected proficiency within a given subject area domain. Thus, it is unsurprising that students leaving high school for the community college campus are unaware of what it takes to be prepared for collegelevel coursework.
The California community colleges' use of local community college standards and assessments predates the current statewide high school standards and assessments.
1Richard S. Brown and David N. Niemi, Investigating the Alignment of High School and Community College Assessments in California (San Jose: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2007).


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