Many State Tests Said To Be Poor Indicators Of College Readiness

By Sean Cavanagh — October 29, 2003 4 min read
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The tests states use to measure high school students’ academic skills too often fail to gauge those teenagers’ readiness for college-level work, according to a report released last week.

The study by the University of Oregon’s Center for Educational Policy Research found that exit exams, end-of-course tests, and other state assessments at the high school level have an “inconsistent relationship” with the demands graduating seniors face in higher education.

Individual state rankings and the report, “Mixed Messages,” is available from the Center for Educational Policy Research.

The researchers examined 35 English/language arts exams and 31 mathematics tests from 20 states.

David T. Conley, the director of the research center, said an increasing number of states are exploring ways of upgrading their tests to align them more with postsecondary standards, but progress is slow.

“A half-dozen states are trying to do this. There weren’t that many five or 10 years ago,” said Mr. Conley, an associate professor at the university in Eugene, Ore. Policymakers need to go further in addressing the question of how to design such tests to meet the needs of both K-12 and higher education, he said.

Cutting Remedial Costs

Predicting College Success
A study released last week by the University of Oregon’s Center for Educational Policy Research reviewed 66 state high-school-level assessments from 20 states: 35 tests in English/language arts and 31 tests in mathematics. The study looked at how effectively those tests were aligned with the skills needed to succeed in entry-level college classes, based on standards crafted by 28 institutions of higher education that are members of the Association of American Universities.
Reading comprehension 12 13 10
Writing 5 8 22
Critical thinking 4 12 19
Computation 5 12 14
Algebra 0 19 12
Math reasoning 1 22 8
Geometry 0 25 6

A= State exams with the greatest potential to indicate students’ college readiness in this skill.
B= State exams that need to be studied more closely to determine if they show students’ college readiness in this skill.
C= State exams that may be of high quality, but have limited potential to provide information on college readiness in this skill.

SOURCE: Center for Educational Policy Research

The study grew out of Standards for Success, a project conducted by a consortium of 28 universities that are members of the Association of American Universities, a Washington-based coalition of research- oriented higher education institutions. Those schools underwrote the project, along with the Pew Charitable Trusts.

The report, “Mixed Messages: What State High School Tests Communicate About Student Readiness for College,” ranks state tests with A, B, or C grades based on the exams’ ability to show how prepared students are for college work.

The original criteria for judging those state exams, known as “Knowledge and Skills for University Success,” were developed by the Standards for Success project with input from more than 400 university faculty members and released earlier this year. (“Oregon Study Outlines Standards for College Preparedness,” March 5, 2003.)

Overall, state high school tests were most successful in measuring college readiness in reading comprehension and computation, the center found. The exams scored more poorly in judging college preparation for writing and critical thinking in English studies, algebra, mathematical reasoning, and geometry.

Of the 35 state high school English tests studied by the center, only three received an A, while 18 received a B, and 14 got a C. In the 31 math tests evaluated in the study, no state exams received an A, 29 earned a B, and 2 received a C.

The weaknesses of the high school tests in predicting writing and critical- thinking skills did not surprise Keith Gayler, the associate director of the Center on Education Policy, in Washington, who has studied state exit exams. Nineteen states require students to pass a test to receive a high school diploma.

Many states struggle to craft tests that measure writing skills, which are difficult to score and expensive to implement, said Mr. Gayler. In recent years, some states have sought to ensure that their tests reflect college preparedness, he said, because of worries that state universities have to devote too much time to tutoring incoming freshman in basic skills.

“They would like to be able to cut down on the remediation costs in higher education,” Mr. Gayler said.

More Optional Questions?

“Mixed Messages” does not endorse any particular form of state test, but it seeks to provide state officials with information and suggestions for improvement, Mr. Conley said.

The report recommends that states undertake in-depth studies comparing students’ high school test scores with their success in college. It also says they should consider modifying exams to include more optional questions for college-bound students.

In addition, the report recommends that when state officials revise their high-school-level tests, they should consult with members of the college community to explore ways of linking the tests with the demands of higher education.


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