The College Puzzle Blog
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Dr. Michael W. Kirst

Michael W. Kirst is Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University since 1969.
Dr. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. Before joining the Stanford University faculty, Dr. Kirst held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty. He was a former president of the California State Board of Education. His book From High School to College with Andrea Venezia was published by Jossey Bass in 2004.

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My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

College Readiness and College Success Should Be Enhanced By New Approach to Assessment

Across the nation, high percentages of high school graduates are entering college, but increasingly they need remediation to ensure college success there. As a result, colleges are expending a great deal of resources on remediation instead of college-level education, while large numbers of students are not persisting in college, let alone completing college.

The California State University system has 408,000 students on 23 campuses. About 25,000 out of 40,000 first-time CSU students need some form of remediation. The university must absorb the cost of providing classes not offered for college credit. Parents and students bear additional expenses because remedial courses do not count toward graduation; consequently, college completion is taking a lot longer.

CSU is the first statewide system to adopt a K-12 state assessment as its own placement test for first-year students. This is an important breakthrough in K-16 assessment policy, and it promises to provide clearer signals to high school students who have been uninformed about the discrepancy in standards between their high school grades, tests, and CSU placement. This may have a large impact on academic preparation for college, college readiness and, ultimately, college success.

Rather than administer another exam to high school students, in the late 1990s, CSU decided to negotiate directly with K-12 policymakers to merge CSU placement standards into the existing California Standards Tests, which are given to all students in eleventh grade. A new policy and test design group was formed, representing CSU and the California State Education Department (an advisory group to the California State Board of Education and the CSU Trustees). This group examined test items from several K-12 tests for their relationship to CSU standards, as well as for similarities between K-12 and CSU standards.

The State Board of Education negotiated with CSU to enhance existing K-12 standards-based test to meet CSU placement standards. For example, as CSU requested, a writing sample was added to the existing K-12 multiple choice language arts test, as was an increased focus on Algebra 2 in the math test.

To develop this K-12 early assessment program, CSU gained support from the legislature, the California State Board of Education, the CSU Department of Education, the University of California, California Community Colleges, CSU faculty, and organizations of K-12 teachers and administrators. The development of an augmented eleventh-grade state assessment proceeded with these multiple stakeholders in mind.

In 2003, CSU set the scores that high school juniors would need in order to be exempt from its placement exams. The state sent test results to rising seniors by August 1. Low-scoring students can now use the senior year for intensive academic preparation to meet CSU placement standards.

Common K-16 Standards
The CSU merged K-12 assessments strategy has many advantages and makes this new K-16 collaboration deserving of close scrutiny by other states with high remediation rates. First, it gives a timely, targeted signal to students and schools of the need for added K-12 academic preparation. Moreover, by coordinating K-16 standards, it reduces the total testing time for students in high school and at CSU. In fact, it raises the stakes for statewide high school tests. Previously, students saw no purpose for the eleventh-grade test because the SAT was used for admission and CSU had a separate placement test. The new assessment system increases the academic focus during the senior year of high school for students who are not meeting CSU’s placement standards.

Just as important, the strategy reforms and consolidates multiple K-16 school assessments, while providing better data for K-16 accountability concerning K-12 student academic preparation and college readiness for CSU. Instead of the previous lack of alignment between the standards for exiting high school and those for entering CSU, there are now common standards and performance levels across secondary and postsecondary education.

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