State College Readiness Initiatives and Community Colleges

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1 8 This chapter traces the author s work in developing California State University s Early Assessment Program, an initiative that aligned eleventh-grade performance standards, new English and mathematics curriculum, and teacher education and professional development opportunities to prepare students to meet the state university entrance requirements. State College Readiness Initiatives and Community Colleges David Spence Many states are working on efforts to improve student transitions between high school and college or career to ensure that students are graduating from high school well prepared for college or career training. This is a daunting task. ACT, an independent nonprofit organization that provides assessment, research, information, and program management services in the areas of education and workforce development, estimates that up to 70 percent of high school graduates are not ready for college or career study as measured by meeting readiness benchmarks in reading, writing, and mathematics. Greater attention to the college and career readiness problem by state leaders and policymakers could drastically boost the numbers and percentages of students who graduate from high school ready for college and career study. This chapter discusses lessons learned from a major college readiness initiative, the California State University s (CSU) Early Assessment Program (EAP). It also makes the argument that community colleges could benefit from joining with regional universities in developing college readiness initiatives. This chapter describes a comprehensive statewide initiative that sought to raise attention in college readiness while protecting existing open or less selective admission policies. This distinction between college admissions or entry and readiness is critical. A concern about access the tensions between access and sending signals about readiness (or placement) is a major reason that community colleges have been reluctant to join statewide college readiness initiatives across the nation. NEW DIRECTIONS FOR COMMUNITY COLLEGES, no. 145, Spring Wiley Periodicals, Inc. Published online in Wiley InterScience (www.interscience.wiley.com) DOI: /cc

2 96 POLICIES AND PRACTICES TO IMPROVE STUDENT PREPARATION AND SUCCESS The CSU experience illustrates both the strengths and weaknesses, and the successes and failures, of statewide readiness initiatives. On one hand, the EAP program reached statewide to all high schools in California and established significantly high readiness standards in reading, writing, and mathematics. The EAP also developed, jointly with the California public schools, diagnostic test items for high school students, a revised or new school curriculum to help students meet these standards before graduation from high school, and new professional development opportunities for teachers to learn how to teach to the CSU s standards. The California Community Colleges were not originally included in the EAP. After the inception of the EAP in the CSU, legislation passed to do a pilot of the EAP in the CCCs. Policymakers, educators, and researchers who support this pilot hope that the EAP will signal to prospective community college students that there are academic standards at the CCCs, while not limiting access. Only when a state s community colleges work as one with regional universities can the same powerful, specific messages be sent statewide to all high schools about what it means to be ready for college. This severely limits the impact of the readiness initiative given that most high school graduates in California attend community colleges and look to these institutions for readiness signals. Only when a state s community colleges work as one with regional universities can the same powerful, specific messages be sent statewide to all high schools about what it means to be ready for college. While many are concerned that sending clearer signals about academic preparation could diminish community colleges traditional openaccess mission, diagnostic signaling, when done correctly, will not discourage students from attending. In the tradition of precollege outreach programs that provide information about and supports for the rigors of postsecondary education, providing high school juniors with specific information about their college readiness and how to remedy any deficiencies before graduation will improve their chances of success in community college. State College Readiness Initiatives The EAP work begun at the California State University in 2001 has generated theory and practice that yields a series of steps states can take to implement successful statewide college readiness initiatives: Identification and agreement by all public schools and higher education institutions statewide on one set of academic readiness standards in reading, writing, and math the skills needed to learn at higher levels Diagnostic assessment of high school students performance on the academic readiness standards to enable them to get further help during high school

3 STATE COLLEGE READINESS INITIATIVES AND COMMUNITY COLLEGES 97 Inclusion of readiness performance as part of the state s public school accountability process, ensuring that high schools emphasize college readiness High school developmental courses, other learning activities, and supports focused on college readiness Intensive focus on postsecondary readiness during the senior year of high school Provision of preservice and in-service activities that help prospective and practicing teachers provide courses that focus on the specific learning skills associated with college readiness The CSU added items to California s preexisting high school tests so that the testing burden for students was not increased. We realized, though, that simply testing students without providing additional academic and social supports will not help students prepare for college. The real advancements in student preparation come with the development of new courses, forms of supports, and professional development opportunities to promote readiness. While most popular attention is directed to the eleventh-grade assessment, the core of the EAP and most of the current activity centers on the provision of new courses and professional development opportunities. The key is not just telling students about their readiness for college-level work, but to make sure that students have every opportunity to become ready while still in high school. The EAP s design team believed that the manner and quality with which states carry out the generic steps are equally or even more critical to success. Our experience in California strongly argues that a successful statewide readiness initiative must include the following implementation characteristics. These characteristics are derived from our work in developing the EAP and in observing the implementation statewide. We believe they are likely generalizable for other states and regions that are developing similar reforms: Accurate and strong focus on where the action needs to be on high school classrooms and teachers. All decisions regarding how to carry out the technical implementation steps need to be considered in light of how to create the conditions in which high school teachers can make postsecondary readiness a top priority and can teach effectively. Improving readiness should be approached on a statewide basis, involving all public high schools and all public community colleges and universities. Higher education needs to band together to send readiness information to all high schools. Having this single message about specific standards will enable all high schools and their teachers to focus on and give priority to college readiness with the necessary strength. Currently too many uncoordinated and unclear signals are sent from a variety of colleges and universities.

4 98 POLICIES AND PRACTICES TO IMPROVE STUDENT PREPARATION AND SUCCESS Focus on reading, writing, and mathematics (through algebra 2). These are essential skills needed to learn. In the case of academic readiness, less is more as long as the core skills are identified at the right performance levels. Establish a statewide understanding of what increasing readiness means and what it does not mean, stressing that access and admissions to postsecondary education will not change. In broad access institutions, readiness should be separate from admissions. The readiness standards need to be adopted and applied through common placement procedures in all public community colleges and four-year institutions. To ensure that the statewide readiness standards have maximum priority with all high school teachers, the standards need to be key components of the official state high school standards. Teachers and students need to give high priority to the assessment of high school juniors (rising seniors ) performance on the readiness standards. To make this assessment a high priority for teachers, the assessment needs to directly address the explicit readiness standards and be part of the statewide public school-based assessment program valued by the state school accountability program. Relying on surrogate or correlated standards and assessments (ACT, SAT, Accuplacer, Compass) lessens the priority for teachers. Significant weight needs to be given to college readiness performance in the statewide school accountability program. Cap, cement, and institutionalize the statewide college readiness initiative with robust state-supported statewide programs to strengthen the role of the senior year in improving college readiness and to prepare prospective and practicing teachers. Why Such Slow State Progress? Groups such as Achieve and the American Diploma Project have worked effectively to help a number of states develop college readiness standards. However, no state has succeeded in implementing a statewide college and career readiness initiative that fully involves the pre-k 12 public schools and public sectors of higher education. Of the few states that have defined readiness standards, most have not fully embedded them into state-adopted K 12 school academic standards. No state has brought its entire public higher education system to agreement on specific college and career readiness standards that can be shared and applied by all state two- and four-year colleges and universities. The EAP is an important piece of this work in California, but much is left to be done to implement the EAP in the California Community College system, and the EAP does not include career readiness signals. Moreover, only a few states have addressed effectively the need to develop school-based tests that measure students progress on state-defined

5 STATE COLLEGE READINESS INITIATIVES AND COMMUNITY COLLEGES 99 readiness standards. Some states rely on the ACT and SAT, national college admission tests that do not measure student achievement with direct reference to state-recognized college and career readiness standards. Finally, no state has made college or career readiness a formal component of the state school accountability system. Only California has taken steps to focus the senior year of high school and teacher professional development on readiness standards. State education agencies, boards, officers, education sectors, and legislative and executive government branches have been slow to unite completely around common readiness goals or a specifically defined readiness agenda. Slow progress can be traced to several reasons, some concerning a lack of needed understanding and commitment by state policymakers and some related to the fears and self-interest of education sectors. Overall there is a strong need at the state level for a greater public understanding of the readiness problem and its impact and importance. Progress in many states has been slowed by a concern that the open access mission of public postsecondary education, and particularly the community colleges, will be constricted. This is not and need not be so. The public cherishes and wants to protect access to community colleges and broad access institutions. These missions must stay intact, and students must never be dissuaded from attending. It is too easy currently to confuse admissions or entry with readiness. The public does not appreciate the difference between readiness (or placement) standards and admission standards and does not realize that both can be applied at the same time. They often do not know that admission standards are different and may be higher or lower than readiness standards. The public has no idea of the vast extent of the lack of readiness according to even moderate standards of reading, writing, and math. Finally, the general public just now is beginning to make not just access to, but completion of, postsecondary education pathways, certificates, or degrees a priority. As this priority takes hold, there will be great pressure on postsecondary schools to increase completion rates, which will in turn press postsecondary education to work with K 12 to improve the readiness of incoming students. In short, the oncoming public move to hold colleges accountable, and perhaps even tie state funding in some way to these results, will create the imperatives needed for colleges to make academic readiness a priority. Why Is It in the Interest of Community Colleges to Promote Statewide College Readiness Initiatives? The short answer, of course, is that it is in the students and state s interests: more students ready for college or career preparation on graduating from high school, with the consequent increase in completing pathways, certificates, and degrees. All of this makes better use of student and state resources and promotes individual and state social and economic success, in contrast to a situation in which students drop out of postsecondary education before

6 100 POLICIES AND PRACTICES TO IMPROVE STUDENT PREPARATION AND SUCCESS completing their goals. Another answer recognizes that statewide readiness initiatives cannot succeed without full commitment of all community colleges. Only when all of postsecondary education sends one set of readiness signals can all high schools receive a strong and focused message. Community college leadership in state readiness initiatives also will increase the leaders effectiveness and reputation. Indeed, community colleges, more than any other postsecondary education segment, have more to gain. These benefits particularly will help buttress, substantiate, and protect the open-access mission in three badly needed ways. First, leading efforts to define college readiness standards, which both four-year institutions and community colleges identify and apply statewide, will do much to make tangible the quality of community colleges and especially of their baccalaureate transfer programs. Unfair or not, the community colleges dedicated association with open-door admissions can lead to a public perception that community colleges lack standards. Of course, the truth is that while admission criteria are open, readiness standards through placement are applied after entry. Establishing this distinction between admission and readiness standards by adopting common and significant statewide readiness standards (at least similar to those of regional universities in the state) would do much to prove community college quality. Second, these readiness standards, especially if built with regional universities, would help to allay concerns over the quality of transfer programs. Few if any state higher education systems have good ways to oversee the quality of such programs, either through objective program exit criteria (beyond course content and grades) or on the front end substantive placement standards in the community college that rise to the level expected in many senior institutions. As unfair or unfounded as these perceptions are, establishing significant standards (comparable to four-year college placement standards) for beginning baccalaureate degree-creditable study would go a long way toward confirming the quality of community college transfer programs. Third, full participation and leadership in statewide readiness initiatives would fortify community colleges efforts to raise associate degree completion and transfer rates. The increasing public recognition of the relationships of associate and bachelor s degree attainment to a state s economy and to individual success is causing state policymakers to rethink how state funding and accountability mechanisms can be reworked to emphasize degree completion. We know that any concerted commitment to increase completion must lead with higher readiness levels of incoming students, arguably the most important factor in completion. Identifying and applying common and higher readiness standards is crucial in two ways. First, these standards and the associated high school assessments as well as the increased focus of the teachers and curriculum on them will result in higher percentages of high school graduates ready to begin collegelevel study.

7 STATE COLLEGE READINESS INITIATIVES AND COMMUNITY COLLEGES 101 Second, establishing the right kind and level of readiness standards is key to ensuring that developmental education programs effectively are preparing students to complete degrees. It is very likely that the current standards are not strong enough or are not applied as criteria to exit developmental education. These readiness standards, as adjusted to reflect the levels of reading, writing, and math actually required to complete degrees, can guide developmental education programs whose value will only increase with the higher premium accorded completion. The CSU s experience with the development and implementation of the EAP provides many lessons for other states. K 12 and postsecondary institutions must speak with a unified voice to prospective college students and families. They need to agree on a set of readiness standards and on the measures to be taken, in partnership, to help students improve their preparation. And the most appropriate policy lever must be used to embed expectations into the classroom. Finally, much of the work takes time, and capacity needs to be built for schools and teachers to meet new expectations; courses must be aligned with readiness expectations and teachers must know how to help students prepare particularly students who are not traditionally in college-bound curricular tracks. DAVID SPENCE is president of the Southern Regional Education Board. Previously he served as executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer of the California State University system.

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