Some 11th graders not getting message about how much new Smarter Balanced tests matter

Photo by CSU Stanislaus Photo/Flickr (Creative Commons)

The California State University is now using incoming freshmen’s test scores on the state's new standardized tests to decide if students are ready for college level math and English or if they need to take remedial classes.

The new requirement is leading CSU officials to urge 11th graders to take the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (Smarter Balanced) tests more seriously.

“It does in fact give them an opportunity to determine how ready they are to take college level English and math courses once they enroll in the CSU,” said Carolina Cardenas, CSU's director of academic outreach and early assessment.

Here’s how it works:

There are four possible “scores” on the Smarter Balanced English and math tests: exceeds, meets, nearly meets, and fails to meet the standards.

CSU-bound 11th graders – the only grade in high school required to take the Smarter Balanced standardized tests – who exceed the standard don’t need remediation and can move forward with their Cal State enrollment.

But an 11th grader who meets the standard must get at least a C grade in a pre-approved academic class during the 12th grade to prove readiness for college work. A student who nearly meets or fails to meet the standard can prove readiness by passing the CSU readiness test.

Students who fall short on these requirements must take a summer Early Start course online or a campus for a fee.

Based last year's 11th grade Smarter Balanced scores, a large part of Cal State's incoming class next fall will have to take some action this year to prove they're ready for college work.

Seventy five percent of the 432,000 students who took the English Smarter Balanced test scored either met the standard, nearly met, or didn't meet the standard while 83 percent of students who took the math portion achieved those three scores. 

Cal State campuses may put a student’s registration on hold if the student doesn’t take care of these requirements.

Remediation – along with low graduation rates – became such a serious problem at Cal State campuses that Governor Jerry Brown used funding approval to compel the CSU to make improvements.

Before the Smarter Balanced test, Cal State used a voluntary placement test for 11th graders to place students in remedial classes. Far fewer students took that test compared to the Smarter Balanced test which meant that many students fell through the cracks and struggled with math and English courses.

In the fall of 2011 about 33 percent of first time freshmen system-wide were not ready for college level work in English and math. At some campuses that remediation rate reached 67 percent.

Using the Smarter Balanced test scores is one way CSU is trying to make sure college bound high school students are doing more to prepare for their higher education.

“Remediation courses are costly and they don’t count towards their degree. What we want is for students to come as prepared as they possibly can on the front end so that they can meet their academic goals in four or five years,” Cardenas said.

She predicts the new Cal State remediation requirements will shorten the time to graduation for many students.

There are nearly half a million 11th graders and about the same number of 12th graders enrolled in California public schools. Making sure all of them get the message has been difficult.

Last year CSU’s 23 campuses enrolled nearly 90,000 California resident freshmen.

CSU created a poster and a booklet explaining the requirements and sent them to every public high school in the state. Last year Cal State reached over 5,000 high school counselors in the state, Cardenas said.

But she and school district officials recognize there’s a long way to go to make sure these changes reach every high school student.

“I was not aware at all that the Smarter Balanced test would be used for college readiness,” said Uduak-Joe Ntuk, whose 11th grade daughter attends Wilson High School in Long Beach.

She plans to apply to several CSU, UC, and out of state universities, he said, and the preparation and application process has made him a very involved parent.

“I get the daily emails, and announcements, I visit the district web site frequently, they send recorded calls out to parents about PTA meetings, football games, and prom, but nothing about this,” he said. He plans to have a longer talk with his daughter to make sure she's ready to take the Smarter Balanced test in the next few weeks. 

Long Beach Unified did not respond to a request for comment.

Longtime Riverside counselor Catalina Cifuentes said California counselor are responsible for too many students which means that some students may not meet with a counselor one-on-one during the year.

“More groundwork needs to be done” she said. And it shouldn’t all be put on the counselor’s plate. This information can be put out briefly during a pep rally, during first period, at parent nights, through mailers, she said, all it takes is high school leaders to rally the campus community as they do for key events throughout the school year. 

“We can do this for graduation tickets but we need to be doing this for this testing so kids are aware,” Cifuentes said.

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