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Making the L-EAP 

Early Assessment Program helps gauge students' college readiness but remains a work in progress

This is news to Norma—not to mention her parents. Norma considers herself a good student, with a solid B average and an academic record that suggests she’s squarely on track to meet all of her a-g requirements for on-time high school graduation and advancement.

But unless things change during her senior year, Norma may eventually discover that the colleges and universities she’s considering will all require her to take remedial English or remedial math—or possibly both—during her freshman year. Norma thinks she’s ready for college; her future professors disagree.

Alas, Norma is, well, the norm. Too many California high school graduates enrolling in a college or university do not meet postsecondary standards for English and math. That means they will be required to take remedial courses that increase the cost of their education, slow its progress and reduce the chances they will successfully obtain a degree.

In 2004, leaders in the California State University system, collaborating with the state Department of Education and the State Board of Education, developed a novel and much-noted effort to help college-bound high school students determine their readiness for postsecondary academics: the Early Assessment Program.

EAP is a voluntary test taken by 11th graders (in conjunction with the mandated California Standards Test) to measure their college readiness, with the idea being that students who are less than fully prepared for higher education will have their senior year to get up to speed. To encourage participation and performance, students who demonstrate college readiness on the EAP are exempted from taking CSU or other placement tests.

“The thinking is that the more prepared students are for college, the more likely they are to get a diploma,” says William G. Tierney, a professor of higher education at the University of Southern California, director of its Center for Higher Education Policy Analysis and a veteran researcher on the subject.

“The EAP is a good idea at the right time,” says Michael Kirst, president of California’s State Board of Education and a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University, who notes that 80 percent of high school students say they want a college degree. “Students today may be the most ambitious generation ever.”

There are two EAP tests: one for English, which all high school juniors can take, and one for math, which can be taken only by juniors who have completed or who are enrolled in Algebra II. Results are sent to students in late summer, prior to the beginning of their senior year; the findings simply indicate whether a student is ready for college or not. (In the case of math, there is a third option—“conditionally ready”—for students who will be considered ready if they successfully complete a specific high school course they’re currently taking or expected to take.)

In 2010, 84 percent of eligible public high school students took the English EAP. Fewer students took the EAP math test because of its more detailed requirements.

But the results are not encouraging. Only 21 percent of the students who took the English EAP demonstrated readiness for college. In math, 15 percent were considered college-ready, and 42 percent were identified as conditional. Those numbers are part of an ongoing, vigorous debate: How well are high school students being prepared for college, and what are the responsibilities of universities, community colleges and K–12 schools and districts?

Repeating history

In a perfect world, there would be no such thing as remedial education. All students would learn what they need to know to be “college-ready” before leaving high school. But that’s not the case and it never has been. Remedial courses have always been an element of education—
and an important one.

“Remedial and developmental education has contributed to the democratization of American higher education by serving as a key lever to expanding access for scores of individuals,” wrote the authors of a 2010 report from Policy Research on Preparation Access and Remedial Education at the University of Massachusetts. “This is important for policymakers to remember because without remedial and developmental courses, many students may have never gained the opportunity to succeed in higher education.”

But there is a decided downside to remedial education as well.

Remedial courses cost students as much in fees and tuition as other college classes, but they don’t count toward a degree. That can be enormously frustrating—enough, perhaps, to contribute to untold numbers of college freshmen quitting school, thus reducing their long-term earning potential.

Remedial courses are also expensive for states and postsecondary institutions. A 1998 study, put the cost of remedial education in postsecondary institutions between $1 billion and $2 billion annually—and a recent update boosted that as high as $3 billion.

Cognitive dissonance

But the larger debate, the one that effectively spurred the creation of the EAP, is about what it means to be “college-ready”—and who gets to decide.

As it turns out, there are multiple answers and opinions. A 2008 survey commissioned by the Chronicle of Higher Education polled 1,098 college faculty and 746 high school teachers about the preparedness of high school students. The contrasts are stark:

  • 65 percent of high school teachers said high school graduates were either not well prepared or only somewhat well prepared for college; 84 percent of college faculty members held the same opinion.
  • 12 percent of high school teachers flatly declared students to be unprepared—about half the percentage among college faculty.
  • Conversely, 36 percent of high school teachers thought high school graduates were very or extremely well prepared for college; just 15 percent of college faculty agreed.

Drilling down, only 10 percent of high school teachers thought high school students were not well prepared for college-level writing—a view held by almost half of college faculty. At the other end of the spectrum, 36 percent of teachers believed students were very well prepared as writers, compared to a paltry 6 percent of professors. Similar dissimilarities held for math preparedness.

These differences of perception reflect a harsh reality in education, particularly in California: The state’s K–12 schools, community colleges and four-year institutions are decidedly independent and have never really talked to each other very well.

“There’s a long, evolving history of disjuncture between K–12 and postsecondary education in California,” says Stanford’s Kirst, citing eight primary reasons:

  • Historically, there’s been a bifurcation of policy and practice between higher education and K–12.
  • Student standards are established in separate orbits.
  • K–16 faculty rarely works together.
  • There is no institutionalized entity at the state or regional level to make policy or integrate K–16 practices.
  • No single group lobbies for K–16 linkage.
  • No data or accountability system monitors K–16 performance.
  • Programmatic responses are often fragmented and rarely examined.
  • Nobody loses a job for poor K–16 linkage or performance.

“The big issue is alignment,” observes David Plank, executive director of Policy Analysis for California Education, an independent, nonpartisan research center based at Stanford University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Southern California. “High school districts operate under one set of standards and expectations. Postsecondary operates under a different set. These are separate and autonomous systems with no common governance. There’s really no incentive to collaborate, particularly in times when resources are scarce. It’s even harder during times like these to get people to the table. Everybody is focused on protecting what they’re doing, rather than doings things differently.”

The Long Beach ‘Promise’

For its advocates, the EAP is a bold attempt to do things differently.

“I think the EAP is a good idea for a couple reasons,” says Michel Kurlaender, an associate professor in the University of California, Davis, School of Education. “First, [getting] more information to students about their academic readiness for college is critical. Second, this is a deliberate effort on the part of the postsecondary community to provide not just information, but also support to the K–12 community about what they mean by ‘college-ready.’ ”

Progress has been slow, but steady. Of California’s 1,400 public high schools, at least 376 now embrace the EAP. Other schools incorporate parts of it.

One oft-cited example is in Long Beach. In 2008, education leaders from the Long Beach Unified School District, Long Beach City College and CSU Long Beach signed “the Long Beach College Promise.” They vowed to provide every graduating LBUSD student with an opportunity to attend college. Among the key provisions of the Promise:

  1. The community college would provide a free semester of tuition to students who take the EAP and are declared college-ready.
  2. CSU Long Beach would accept all Long Beach Unified students who completed the minimum college prep or community college transfer requirements.
  3. All three institutions would provide student and family outreach services from sixth grade through college to ensure college entrance requirements were fulfilled and students were successful.
  4. All three institutions would support various college pathways that students may choose from based on their personal circumstances and interests. These pathways include going directly to a four-year institution or a two-year community college; transferring from the latter to the former; or obtaining vocational training, a technical education or professional certification.

“Our College Promise is a driving force in our district,” Long Beach Unified school board member Mary Stanton says. “We have worked to align our coursework with that required by [CSULB and the community college]. By working closely with faculty of each institution, we break down barriers to learning the required material. I believe the College Promise works in Long Beach because the entire community has embraced the concept through their financial support, because they realize the potential for our community and because the local educational leaders here work well together and support each other completely.”

Data—and district—challenges

Though California’s EAP is frequently extolled as a model for other states, little empirical data exists to prove its efficacy. One of the few studies to be completed comes from Kurlaender at UC Davis, who looked at whether the EAP reduced the need for local freshmen entering CSU Sacramento to take remedial English or math.

Kurlaender and colleagues found that between 2004, when the EAP was first implemented, and 2009, when they reported their findings, there was a 6-point drop in the percentage of Sacramento State freshmen requiring remedial English and a 4-point drop in remedial math.

“This is perhaps the best part of the story,” Kurlaender said at the time. “Students and high schools appear to be using the information from the Early Assessment Program to act in their senior year of high school.”

But other observers require more persuasion. Some critics of EAP contend one of the program’s greatest deficiencies is its lack of timely, actionable information. In an article published earlier this year in the journal American Behavioral Scientist, USC’s Tierney and colleague Lisa D. Garcia noted that high school students interviewed in focus groups or who responded to a survey were surprisingly ignorant about the EAP, its purpose and how mandated remedial coursework might affect their college career.

PACE’s Plank agrees: “The biggest obstacle to students getting into postsecondary education is the lack of knowledge about what it takes. They just don’t know. They’re frankly ignorant. They hear that anybody can go to a community college, but the fact is that most of these students will enter taking remedial classes. That’s not getting ahead with their college education.”

Tierney and Garcia aren’t much kinder to high school teachers, counselors and school systems, which they say fail to provide sufficient guidance, let alone remedies.

“Students often don’t understand or recognize the reality they confront,” Tierney says. “You have students in low-performing schools who are told they are in the top 5 percent of their class and they feel like they’re doing a good job. Then they get to college and end up in remedial classes.”

The obvious, traditional solution might be for high school counselors to pull aside students identified as not ready for college by the EAP and provide direction about courses they should or must take in their senior year to get up to speed.

But for most school districts, confronted by ever-shrinking funding and the necessity of repeated budget cuts, that’s an unlikely, even unachievable scenario. The typical high school counselor these days is overworked and overstretched, responsible for helping roughly 270 students each year, according to the National Association for College Admission Counseling. In many schools and districts, the ratio is much larger.
And the EAP’s late-summer alert to students is also problematic, some critics say.

“While the EAP is well-meaning, it’s naive to think that this warning system can trigger meaningful remediation during students’ senior year in high school,” cautions Lynn O’Shaughnessy, an education consultant and writer who maintains the College Solution blog.

“If 17-year-olds aren’t ready for college, it’s unlikely they will be ready when they are a year older. Playing catch-up is going to be just about impossible at this stage, because most students in California and throughout the country leave high school without enough preparation.”

Plank, at the PACE research center, concurs with others that the timing of the EAP is troublesome.

“It’s a challenge to districts. How do you put together a master schedule that allows seniors to change courses in late summer?” Plank asks. “It’s a real logistical challenge” he repeats—before adding a note of optimism: “It should get better as the state modernizes its assessment system. It’s a problem that can be solved.”

Work in progress

Likewise with the larger issue of understanding and acting upon EAP results. Tierney says high schools must do more to help students and their families understand the significance of EAP and what it means to them. High school educators don’t disagree.

“We need to do a better job of creating awareness and understanding about the EAP among parents, students and family members,” says Gary Thomas, superintendent of schools for San Bernardino County, which is conducting a pilot EAP program with other local educational institutions. “Its importance can’t be underestimated.”

However, that outreach doesn’t have to be counselors in one-on-one sessions with students, notes Pamela Clute, a professor of mathematics at the University of California, Riverside, who is involved in the San Bernardino County pilot project. “It can be brochures. It can be teachers sending out emails. Or social media. Or non-education partners like local libraries disseminating the news. We need to be creative,” Clute advises.

More to the point, she and others say, all of the early evidence points to the EAP improving college readiness.

“We’ve had some success in K–12, and a lot of that has to do with exposure,” says Superintendent Thomas. “We have really tried to make an impact with counselors and site administrators regarding the importance of the EAP as an instrument to determine college readiness. With the pilot we are doing, we are working very collaboratively K–16, with high schools, community colleges, Cal State [San Bernardino] and Cal Poly [San Luis Obispo]. We are one county that has a UC willing to help pilot the program, and we are having favorable conversations with private colleges.”

There is no question that the EAP is a work in progress, much like students themselves, agrees Sonia Ortiz-Mercado, dean of matriculation and early assessment in the CSU Chancellor’s Office.

“At the local level, there needs to be greater investment and collaboration among high school teachers and postsecondary faculty, especially those in community colleges. We’re seeing more of that, better alignments of exit standards to entry-level expectations.

“I think, too, we’re improving on the timeliness and relevance of the EAP. With the new wave of assessments, the common core curricula, the EAP can be a model for building in college-readiness testing going deeper into K–12 standards. We’re getting better at informing people—students and families—about what it means to be college-ready, though we have a long ways to go.”

Stanton, the Long Beach Unified school board member, seconds that assessment.

“Our goal is to prepare students throughout K–12 for college,” she says. “Beginning with prekindergarten, we have coordinated the curriculum to have a consistent approach to reading and math. For students who are with us for the entire 13 years, we continually assess and correct to prevent the ‘oops factor’ of nearing graduation unprepared. … We have invested in machines at each school so that all teachers can receive feedback on progress. We view this as constructive. We see results over time. Teachers see what works. Students are constantly challenged.”
The EAP—and its related components—are a key element of this effort, Stanton asserts. It’s an expensive, time-consuming and ever-pressing challenge. “But that’s minor,” she concludes, compared to “the cost of doing nothing.”

Scott LaFee is a frequent contributor to California Schools.

College-ready resources

Getting Past Go—California
This website has information on remedial and developmental courses provided by campuses of the California State University and California Community College systems. Getting Past Go is a national initiative of the Education Commission of the States, Knowledge in the Public Interest and Policy Research on Preparation, Access and Remedial Education at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

The Long Beach Promise
“The Long Beach College Promise is part of the Academic and Career Success Initiative approved by the [Long Beach Unified School District] Board of Education in September 2007 to provide as many college and career options as possible to all students. Central to the Initiative is the enhancement of the Seamless Education partnership between LBUSD, [Long Beach Community College and California State University, Long Beach], developed in the 1990s to improve student achievement and teacher quality,” according to the website.

California Education Round Table
CERT—which includes staff, faculty and student representatives from all sectors of K–16 education in California—offers publications, materials for counselors, teachers and parents, and links to other major sources of information. This website is also the Web portal to the Intersegmental Coordinating Committee, which “has responsibility for fostering collaboration within California’s educational community at all levels through conducting activities and supporting strategies that link the public schools, community colleges, and baccalaureate-granting colleges and universities.”

‘Prepped for life’
In this four part series that spans two years of California Schools magazine archives, staff writer Kristi Garrett looks at postgraduate prospects through the eyes of actual high school students. “Prepped for Life” installments include “Getting Students Ready for the World After High School” (Fall 2005); “Getting Students Ready for the World of Work” (Winter 2005); "Ample Resources, Great Expectations for the University-bound” (Spring 2006); and “A Day of Reckoning Arrives for Dropouts and their Schools” (Summer 2006).

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