Comparing College Readiness across States
How does California compare to other states in preparing students for college? This isn’t necessarily a straightforward question to answer, because most cross-state metrics, such as Advanced Placement or SAT performance, only capture the subset of students who are thinking seriously about college. However, California’s new 11th-grade assessments are aligned to college-readiness standards and administered in many other states—allowing us see how California compares to other states in preparing all students for college.
These new Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) tests are aligned with the Common Core curriculum standards. The 2015–16 school year was the second year of statewide administration of these tests for students in grades 3–8 and grade 11 in California.
A high enough score on the 11th-grade test is an early guarantee that students can take college-level courses, rather than remedial courses, upon enrolling at any California State University (CSU) and most community colleges in the state. As part of California’s Early Assessment Program, students who score in the highest level (“standard exceeded”) in English language arts (ELA) or math are exempt from remediation at participating colleges. Students who score in the second highest level (“standard met”) are considered conditionally ready for college coursework and may become exempt from remediation upon successfully completing a specified course in the 12th grade. Ten other states also participate in the exam, and while the test scores don’t affect college remediation for all colleges in every state, over 200 colleges across most of the states accept the scores.
In California, 13% of 11th graders were ready for college courses in math and 20% were conditionally ready. In English, 26% were ready and an additional 33% were conditionally ready. California ranks about in the middle of all other states taking the exams, a surprising result considering previous standardized tests such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress have consistently placed California students as among the lowest-performing in the nation. Moreover, of the states using the exams, California has the largest share of students in the federal free or reduced-lunch program (a proxy for low-income status) and by far the largest share of English Learners. Students from both groups are about half as likely to be prepared for college compared with their peers. In other words, the California scores are perhaps more impressive in light of the barriers to college readiness that more California students face.
Does this mean that California is doing a good job preparing students for college? This 11th-grade test is meant to be an early signal to students of their college readiness. Students also have their senior year to prepare for college, and the readiness levels of 59% in English and 33% in math will likely improve by the end of 12th grade. However, for students who do go to college, remediation rates are still high at CSU (40%) and community colleges (80%), and haven’t changed much since the new assessments began. These results and cross-state comparisons show us that California has room for improvement and may face more challenges than other states moving forward.
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