California State University could ax remedial placement test

The CSU Chancellor's office in Long Beach.
The CSU Chancellor's office in Long Beach.
Stuart Palley/ KPCC

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For decades, California high school seniors have had to take special English and math exams to help determine if they need to enroll in remedial education courses once they begin their studies at a California State University (CSU) campus.

But this year's class could be the last required to take the tests under a batch of proposals meant to improve the way the university system decides if a student needs remedial help once he or she enrolls.

“We’re really interested in less [testing] and more exposure to writing and more exposure to quantitative reasoning and math,” said CSU Vice Chancellor Eric Forbes.

The changes would allow CSU campuses to use multiple measures – such as high school grades, grade point average, types of classes taken, and SAT scores – to decide whether to require incoming students to take non-credit remedial classes or receive other type of academic support.

In 2016, 18,918 California seniors took the English Placement Test (EPT) and 29,852 seniors took the Entry Level Mathematics (ELM) exam.

The proposed changes could help the university system meet the ambitious goals it set out for itself to increase the number of degrees it hands out each year, cut the number of years students spend in their studies, and improve graduation among Latino and black students.

Presidents of the 23 Cal State campuses are reviewing a draft of the proposal and making suggestions.

Some high school administrators welcomed news of the possible change.

“Some kids don’t test so well,” said Humberto Solorio, a counselor at California High School in Whittier. “But they’re definitely committed and they have that team work ethic, they do well in classes, and when you look at predictors for success, often times that’s a better indicator.”

He’s seen students admitted to a CSU campus get discouraged by a low score on the placement test. He counsels students not to get demoralized as well as to put their energies into doing well in their last year of high school and to take summer courses before they enroll in a Cal State.

Other administrators believe low placement test scores disproportionately affect students of color.

“Having those scores, it leads our students to not even pursue going into a four-year university right after high school,” said Lynwood High School principal Carlos Zaragoza. “They’d rather go to a community college and do the coursework there.”

But he and his counselors try to counsel students against that route because low transfer rates between community colleges and four-year schools mean they may not make it.

Cal State officials know this is happening and see these changes as a way to more quickly place students in college-level classes with adequate academic supports. 

“What improves the retention is how well you do in your first year, so what we want to stop doing is placing students in courses that don’t have college credit,” said Vice Chancellor Forbes.

The proposed changes could become final next month and would apply to next year’s high school seniors.