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Bubble Trouble

NEWS 1testTest scores show decline in college readiness

Scores of Santa Cruz County 11th graders on a leading California State University assessment test in recent years look like a Republican presidential candidate poll. The percentage of students with proficient English scores sat at a Donald Trump-like 27 percent. Meanwhile, higher-level math scores are skimming Bobby Jindal territory, at about 1 percent.

Three percent of the county’s public school students were deemed “ready” for university-level math beyond algebra 2, according to the California State University’s Early Assessment Program from 2010. Another 9 percent were at least “somewhat ready” for math beyond high school. By 2013-14, those figures had dipped to 1 percent ready for college-level algebra and 8 percent somewhat ready. This is alarming to college educators who have been following the results on ets.org, the Educational Testing Service website.

Students have the option to release their scores to CSUs. Those who do hit “ready for college” marks are exempt from the assessment tests taken by other freshmen upon enrollment, should they go to a CSU. Those who don’t must take these tests, and often land in lower-level classes, costing them more money and stretching out their time in college, explains Frances Basich Whitney, coordinator of research for Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD).

It’s Whitney’s job to be worried about the test scores, and she admits that the low percentages are a concern. She notes, however, that there are many factors that don’t show up in the scores posted on the California Department of Education and Educational Testing Service websites. One of those factors is that the test is usually given in April—before the end of the year.

“One of the things I hear is ‘we haven’t covered that yet, because the test is not taken at the end of the year,” Whitney says. “Also, because it reaches back through all of [high school math], it may not be as recent in their memory.”

Officials at the Santa Cruz City School District have a couple of measures with which to tackle the issue of slumping math scores, and to build on steady but slow gains in English, says Angela Meeker, assistant superintendent of educational services.

“We are very excited about welcoming math teacher coaches next year,” Meeker says. “[They will look at] what challenges are hardest for our students, like moving from algebra to algebra 2, and also to work with us on early intervention so our students are performing well on the EAP and other tests.”

It should also be noted that Santa Cruz County students are not alone in the challenges they face with this test. A sampling of counties statewide showed roughly the same results in places from Orange County—4 percent “ready” for higher university-level math—to Marin’s zero percent, to Contra Costa coming in at 2 percent.

One of the highest performing counties is El Dorado to the northeast, ringing in a 38 percent college-ready mark in English, and 13 percent ready for higher-level math. But as in Santa Cruz, those numbers are a decline from 2010.

Statewide, 3 percent of students were deemed ready for higher math, and another 7 percent were at least somewhat ready, making Santa Cruz more or less in-step with the state average.

Educators at Cabrillo College tell GT that they have been watching these numbers carefully, although they declined to comment for this story. To them, the test scores are a gauge to whether or not incoming classes will be able to handle the coursework. The Cabrillo course catalog for fall 2015 offers nearly twice as many pre-college-level math courses as those that are transferable to university credit.

Meeker says they have been inviting English teachers from Cabrillo to high school faculty meetings. Even if bridging the gap between high school curriculum and college standards is not achieved right away, both levels of faculty are finding the communication helpful. The 2013-14 school year was the first time this was done and Meeker got positive feedback from both sides.

“It was a great opportunity [for them] to learn more about their future students than any test could have told them,” says Meeker.

The interaction, Meeker says, highlighted the age-old debate over how much attention standardized tests should be given in relation to other factors such as a student’s overall performance and long-term GPA. PVUSD’s Whitney says high school districts have other “internal benchmarks”—such as GPA, math finals separate from state-run tests, and English essays and group projects—that often hold more importance to teachers than a standardized bubble test.

“Some teachers, in the time leading up to the test, may not feel the importance of this test, and some are very adverse to standardized tests in general,” Whitney says.

Another issue is that the test results posted online have omissions. Only students who check a box that says “release my results” are compiled into the combined findings, Meeker says.

“Students planning to go to the University of California often don’t [opt in to the results pool] because they are not interested in the CSU programs,” she says.

This figures in only 60 to 80 percent of results being included in the online tallies. This may in fact further tank the numbers, because so many well-qualified students don’t opt in. A spokesperson at Education Testing Services declined to comment about the results, saying it was against company policy.

Whitney also has problems with the way test results are delivered. Students receive their results in the mail during the month of August, but they are not sent to the schools. Whitney says they only receive a report of the student body in general, rather than a report of what individual students need to work on in their senior year. They would only know that a college-hopeful student is struggling if the student comes forward and asks for help based on their results.

Also, standardized tests are sometimes anything but “standardized.” The state is now going through a transformation of everything they judge as essential knowledge for a person graduating from high school. Until recently, the Early Assessment Program was the part of the Standardized Testing And Reporting (STAR) umbrella of exams. Last year it became part of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress or (CAASPP) group of tests.

The tests changed this year from an intellectual focus to a more “functional model,” as Whitney describes it. This means less equation-only focus, with more word-problem formats that students can relate to. Whitney says some high schools aimed their teaching toward this model sooner than others.

“Some schools saw the changes coming and switched their teaching styles to earlier,” says Whitney. “Others are caught between two systems.”

California Department of Education spokesperson Tina Jung says via email that state officials hope the shift will bring better results. She admits these tests are not perfect, but cautions against educators or students ignoring them.

She also notes the importance of the ongoing shift to what she calls more “hands-on learning” and “critical thinking” in the new Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that the state is rolling out. She says this could provide a boost to college readiness in the near future.

On the one hand, she stands by these tests having a part in catching students’ progress in 11th grade while there is still time for correction. She does, however, candidly point out that sometimes these tests can tell a lot about a student’s future.

“It may be an indicator that they should not go into a math-heavy field,” says Jung. “My daughter never did well in math, but makes a great lawyer.”


PHOTO: PAPER VIEW Only about a quarter of public high school students are ready for college-level English, according to state records. The figures for math are much worse.

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