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California community colleges are reforming to the way they assess their students’ college readiness and place them in remedial courses. A recently passed measure—Assembly Bill (AB) 1805—may increase both the uniformity and transparency of placement policies. PPIC research indicates that AB 1805 has the potential to improve student outcomes and narrow achievement gaps.

Our research finds that clearer and more uniform policies can make assessment results more portable for students. A previous measure, AB 705, established a set of measures a college must use to determine college readiness (e.g., coursework, grades, and/or grade point average). However, colleges continue to have autonomy to set their own rules, as opposed to using the Chancellor’s Office default placement rules. Our latest study finds that varying policies across colleges is a cause for concern. For example, two colleges within the same district might both use high school GPA to place students, but their GPA cutoffs might differ; this could pose problems for students who are assessed at one institution but want to take a transfer-level course at the other college.

AB 1805—which will be implemented systemwide in fall 2019—may help address this concern by mandating that colleges publicize their placement policies. As a result, students will be better informed and may also be more motivated to challenge placement decisions or enroll at colleges with broader access to transfer-level courses.

Variation in placement policies may also contribute to inequitable access to transfer-level courses. Our research indicates that underrepresented students may have more difficulty gaining access to transfer-level courses if they attend colleges with stricter placement rules. AB 1805 requires colleges to report the number of students placed into transfer-level coursework (with or without concurrent support) to the Chancellor’s Office and the public each year, providing racial/ethnic breakdowns. This should make it easier to see whether colleges are implementing placement policies that are fostering inequitable student outcomes.

Over the summer, PPIC engaged in an exhaustive scan of college websites and catalogs to get a sense of how placement policies are being communicated to students. We found that most community colleges do not provide clear and complete information—in fact, only 19 colleges provide placement details (e.g., GPA cutoffs). As we move forward, it will be critical to monitor the implementation of AB 705 and AB 1805 at the college level—including the placement measures being used and levels of access to transfer-level courses. By examining the policies and practices at colleges where underrepresented students experience uneven access to transfer-level courses, progress can be made toward improving outcomes and narrowing achievement gaps.

An important aim of California’s recent K–12 reforms is to change how the state funds, assesses, and holds districts accountable for the education of English Learners (ELs). These policies are beginning to have an impact, and more reforms are on the horizon. At a recent event in Sacramento, PPIC senior fellow Laura Hill outlined the effects of these reforms on ELs and an expert panel delved into the issues from state and local perspectives.

As Hill pointed out, in many ways English Learners are the future in California. A key group in the state’s K‒12 system, ELs currently make up about 21% of the public school population. English Learner status is meant to be temporary—indeed, reclassified ELs (who are deemed proficient enough in English to succeed academically without language support) are among the best performing students in the state. But students who remain ELs for longer periods have poor outcomes.

The panel covered a range of issues, from the aims of reform and the challenges of implementation to the impact of recent immigration enforcement efforts on teachers and students. Panelists agreed that integrating English language development into the academic curriculum is a key aspect of the reforms.

Hilda Maldonado, executive director of the Multilingual and Multicultural Education Department of the Los Angeles Unified School District, said that in LAUSD, “the priority should be to value our students’ home languages as we look at how we can ensure that they succeed.” She also emphasized early intervention: “Focusing on intervening for students in the later grades is a lot harder than focusing on K–3 literacy instruction.”

Veronica Aguila, director of the English Learner Support Division at the California Department of Education, said that the state prioritized the translation of the new academic standards into Spanish. This means that the vast majority of ELs have full access to academic content while they are gaining proficiency in English.

The panelists agreed that the reforms require many teachers to modify their approach so that language development is intertwined with academic content. WestEd’s Robert Linquanti—who works with states and districts on EL assessment, evaluation, and accountability—explained that “teachers need support in order to create the conditions in classrooms where kids really have those rich language opportunities every day.” For example, instead of asking a question that only one student answers, a teacher could set up “situations where students have to work together to solve problems.”

Although there are still many challenges to be addressed, the reforms mark an important shift toward seeing the bilingualism of ELs as an asset. As Aguila put it, “Multilingual education is for all students, not just ELs.”

New data on the educational progress of California’s K–12 students offers a mixed picture: there have been sizable gains in grade 8 reading scores, but more work is needed to close achievement gaps for English Learner, low-income, and African American and Latino students.

The data comes from the 2017 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), commonly referred to as the nation’s report card. Administered periodically in grades 4, 8, and 12, NAEP serves as a common yardstick for states and informs many national policy decisions.

The NAEP results show that the average reading score for California 8th graders has risen from 259 to 263. While the latest score is still below the national average (267), it marks a significant improvement, and the state’s 4 point gain is larger than the 1 point increase at the national level. The increase is driven by improvement at both ends performance scale: fewer students performed at the lowest level and more students performed at the advanced level.

However, there were no significant improvements in grade 8 math and no gains in either subject in grade 4. Also, California did not see any significant narrowing of its student achievement gaps. For instance, the average reading score for Latino students in grade 8 was 27 points lower than that of white students; this gap is not significantly different from the 30 point gap in 1998. Similarly, the average score for low-income students was 28 points lower than that of other students, and that gap is not different than it was as in 1998 (32 points).

Naep Score Figure

The NAEP results provide a useful benchmark of student performance; this is especially important in light of the sea changes under way in California’s public K–12 system. The state revamped its school finance and accountability systems with a focus on improving outcomes among English Learners and other “high-need” students. It also adopted new educational standards in math, English language arts, science, and English language development, and implemented a new assessment system.

A recent PPIC survey finds that a solid majority of adults believe that the financial reforms, in particular, will improve the achievement of English Learners and low-income students. As the reforms take hold, PPIC will continue to monitor their impact.

A new state law is intended to help ensure that all students—particularly those underrepresented in higher education—have access to rigorous math courses in high school. This is a key step to improving college readiness and closing achievement gaps. The centerpiece of the California Mathematics Placement Act is the requirement that districts create and implement a fair, objective, and transparent math placement policy. The law leaves many aspects of implementation up to the districts.

PPIC surveyed the state’s school districts during the 2015–16 school year to examine their placement policies and identify district needs right before the law took effect in 2016–17. In a new report, Math Placement in California’s Public Schools, research fellow Niu Gao and research associate Sara Adan found that districts face a number of challenges in implementing the law. Gao presented the report at a recent Sacramento briefing.

One issue is particularly complex: teacher recommendations. The new law calls for limiting their use due to concerns that they may be systematically biased against economically disadvantaged or Latino and African American students.

The PPIC report shows that teacher recommendations are among the most widely used measures in determining placement—and the way they are used now is complicated. Recommendations typically address both academic and “soft” skills, such as student maturity, persistence, and motivation, which are predictors of student success. The PPIC authors found cases in which teacher recommendations are biased against high-achieving minority students, but they also found cases in which teacher recommendations are advancing minority students who do not perform well on standardized tests. In other words, eliminating recommendations altogether may help some students but at the expense of others.

Gao said the critical issue is not whether teacher recommendations should be used but how they can be designed to complement objective measures, such as tests.

California’s K–12 system is implementing an unprecedented number of reforms. The state’s school funding system and curriculum standards are new, as are all statewide tests. A new school accountability system is being developed. A number of large urban districts are changing their high school graduation requirements. These reforms are designed to equalize opportunities for students and close achievement gaps among demographic groups.

It will be some time before we know what all of these changes add up to, but PPIC researchers who examined the early results of two reforms presented their findings at a PPIC event in Sacramento last week.

California’s New Standardized Tests

PPIC senior fellow Laura Hill summarized the results of California’s new standardized tests, the focus of a PPIC report she coauthored. The scores show that English Learners and economically disadvantaged students are far behind other student groups—possibly farther behind than initially thought. As the accountability system evolves in the state, the test results are an important call to action for districts and schools struggling to help high-need students, Hill said. High-need students did well in some schools and districts, and the first-year results provide an opportunity to learn from their experiences.

College Prep for All?

Julian Betts, an economics professor at the University of California, San Diego, and PPIC adjunct fellow, examined a high school graduation requirement that makes college preparatory courses mandatory for all students. Major urban school districts—including Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, and Oakland—recently implemented this requirement, making it mandatory for students to complete the a–g sequence of classes required for admission to the University of California or California State University. Based on a PPIC analysis of the San Diego Unified School Districts’ Class of 2016, Betts and his coauthors concluded that this requirement is likely to help many students but damage the prospects of others. He suggested steps that San Diego and other districts can take to help lower-achieving students meet the new graduation goals.

Learn more

Visit PPIC’s K–12 education pages
Visit the PPIC Higher Education Center

California gave its first statewide tests aligned with the Common Core standards last spring. The scores have just come out, with 40% of fourth-graders scoring proficient or better on the English Language Arts (ELA) test and 35% doing so in math. Scores for 8th and 11th grade are somewhat higher in ELA and lower in math. This new test is called the Smarter Balanced Assessment.

The share scoring proficient or higher on the new test is lower than on the old test, the California Standards Test (CST). In the final year that students were tested using CST—and on the old state standards—67% of fourth-graders scored proficient or higher. Most public school parents (71%) expected students to score at least as well on the new tests as on the old ones, according to a recent PPIC Statewide Survey. But most educators did not. Here’s why: the Common Core standards are more demanding than California’s old ones, students and teachers are in the early years of transitioning to these standards, and what it means to be proficient on the new test is different than on the old one. California is not the only state finding that the first year of Common Core testing reset perceptions of student performance.

To the right we present results for the CST and the Smarter Balanced tests, alongside California students’ scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), a national ongoing assessment of what children know in a variety of subject areas. While these three test results are not directly comparable because each measures competence relative to different standards and each has its own definition of what it takes for a student to score “proficient,” it is important to have a clear sense of how our students are faring on each. The Smarter Balanced test results for each student group are higher than the NAEP, but low relative to the most recent CST.

We find gaps in proficiency for economically disadvantaged students and English Learners (ELs). Each group is specifically targeted for higher funding levels by the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF). The CST gaps between EL and white students (61%) and between economically disadvantaged and white students (31%) are both smaller than those for the Smarter Balanced test (79% and 54%, respectively). Gaps for the NAEP are somewhat larger than in the Smarter Balanced tests. Educators will not be surprised by these findings.

California’s public school system has seen dramatic changes in recent years, and the 2014–15 Smarter Balanced test results are an important baseline to measure how these changes are affecting students. In the past, California students’ test results improved almost every year that the CST was administered. Today, both the Common Core State Standards and the LCFF aim to improve outcomes for all students and close achievement gaps. Multiple years of Smarter Balanced test results will be needed to monitor progress. These new higher standards are meant to improve outcomes well beyond secondary schooling, and the least advantaged students have the farthest to go. The new curriculum and new funding should help get them there.

Note (TOP CHART): NAEP is given to a representative sample of California students. FRPL refers to students who qualify for free or reduced price meals. Source: 2012-2013 California Standards Test, 2012-13 National Assessment of Educational Progress, and 2014-15 Smarter Balanced Assessments.
Note (BOTTOM CHART): We calculate the percentage gap by subtracting EL and economically disadvantaged students scores from white student scores and dividing by white students’ scores. Source: Authors’ calculations from the SBAC, NAEP, and CST.

The success of California’s new funding formula hinges on whether school districts can improve achievement for students, especially those who are high need. New PPIC research focuses on the issues raised so far by implementation of the new formula—a process that will take eight years.

Last week, Laura Hill, PPIC senior fellow and one of the reports’ co-authors, provided an overview of PPIC’s findings in Sacramento. Her presentation was followed by a panel discussion that looked at the challenges and opportunities presented by the new funding formula. Panelists were Carolyn Chu of the Legislative Analyst’s Office; Jonathan Raymond, president of the Stuart Foundation and former superintendent of the Sacramento City Unified School District; PPIC research associate Paul Warren; and Riverside County school superintendent Kenneth Young. Patrick Murphy, PPIC research director moderated.

The PPIC reports are listed below:

Implementing California’s School Funding Formula: Will High-Need Students Benefit?

Implementing Local Accountability in California’s Schools: The First Year of Planning

Low-Income Students and School Meal Programs in California

Policymakers and educators have a lot of questions these days about whether new communication technologies can be helpful in higher education. Will they lower the cost of teaching, provide access to those who are otherwise left out, or provide more effective individualized instruction? With encouragement from Sacramento, California’s three public higher education segments are pursuing new initiatives in online education. On Tuesday, PPIC hosted a lunch event on this topic.

Hans Johnson, PPIC Bren Fellow, talked about his recent study, co-authored with PPIC research associate Marisol Cuellar Mejia, about online education in the state’s community colleges. The study found that participation in online courses has soared in the last decade but that success rates—in terms of course completion and passing grades—are lower for online students.

An expert panel expanded the discussion, with Joseph Moreau, executive sponsor of the Online Education Initiative at the California Community Colleges; Ashley Skylar, quality assurance manager for academic technology services at the California State University; and Arnold Bloom, who teaches an online course in climate change at UC Davis. Panelists talked about efforts to improve the quality of online instruction—the course materials and training of instructors. They also said it is too soon to tell whether online education may save money, but the size of California’s higher education systems provides opportunities for collaboration among campuses, which may produce more cost-effective education.

Online learning has become a topic of great debate in higher education. Its advocates have high hopes that it will expand opportunities and rein in costs. Policymakers in Sacramento have taken note. The new state budget provides tens of millions of dollars to support online learning.

When most people think of on online education, they think of MOOCs—massive open online courses—which provide free access to classes taught by faculty from the nation’s top universities. MOOCs have garnered headlines and been the subject of much debate about their potential to reinvent higher education. Meanwhile, California’s community colleges have quietly created an extensive set of offerings in online education. They now provide more online credit courses than any other public higher education institution in the country—a testament to the community colleges’ willingness and ability to innovate.

Enrollment has soared from just a few thousand students a dozen years ago. By 2012, online course enrollment in the state’s community colleges totaled almost one million, representing about 11 percent of total enrollment. Among students taking credit courses in 2011–12, one of every five took at least one online course. Indeed, practically all of the community college enrollment increases over the past ten years have occurred in online courses.

The Public Policy Institute of California has completed an analysis of student success in these courses that points out both the opportunities and challenges in providing online education. We found that online courses are providing some students with an important and useful tool that helps them achieve their community college goals. For example, students who take at least one online course are more likely to earn a degree, transfer to a four-year college, or earn a certificate than students who take only traditional courses.

But there are significant problems. First, the digital divide is evident. Latino students are less likely than students from other ethnic groups to take online courses. Moreover, the achievement gap is exacerbated in online settings. African Americans and Latinos have lower success rates in traditional classes than Asians and whites, and the achievement gaps are even wider in online courses.

And finally, even though online students tend to be stronger academically, they are less likely to successfully complete online courses than traditional courses. This lower course success rate is true across all types of students, a wide set of subjects, and almost all colleges. Indeed, once we controlled for student characteristics—such as overall grade point averages and other factors such as colleges and course subject—students are at least 11 percentage points and as many as 14 points less likely to successfully complete an online course than otherwise similar students in traditional format classes.

California’s community colleges need both more information and a more strategic approach before online learning can fulfill its promise. Little is known about the cost of developing and providing online courses. We won’t know if online learning is less expensive than traditional course work—as some of its advocates believe—unless we begin to systematically collect cost information.

The colleges won’t be able to improve outcomes for the rich diversity of their students unless they take a number of steps. They need to evaluate the online courses being taught now, identify the most successful instructional and technological approaches, and provide professional development for faculty to create and deliver high-quality online learning. They need to provide services for online students to help improve success rates. And they can use the power of technology to track students’ progress in detail, and offer instruction that is more targeted and customized.

Once high quality courses are identified and developed, it will be a challenge to ensure that those courses are readily available to students across California’s vast community college system. The community college’s Online Education Initiative is an important step in the right direction. Its goals are consistent with our recommendations to identify best practices and implement them widely. Its success will depend on identifying and implementing effective policies and programs that improve student outcomes. Going forward, a strong strategic approach will help California to make the most of its investments in online learning.

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