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Lesson 9.4

Student Readiness:
College and Career

Some tests matter more than others – one in particular.

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Most parents expect K-12 education to prepare their kids for success in college. This is too often a flawed assumption.

California can tell students if they are ready for college

It doesn't help anyone when students bomb out.

To qualify for admission to one of California's four-year colleges, students need to take and pass the set of courses known as the a-g requirements. They need to take the right tests, including either the ACT or SAT exam. But are they ready?

For many years, colleges invested significant time and effort to develop and administer placement exams. A major purpose of these tests was to determine if a student needed some extra work to master stuff they should have learned in high school. The test, not to mention the remedial coursework, was burdensome to both students and colleges.

In 2018, the education system completed an "alignment" process that seems obvious in retrospect but that took years to put in place.

Students who take the CAASPP test don't have to take a placement exam.

In their junior year, California high school students take the 11th grade CAASPP test, a computer-adaptive exam. By taking this test, students are automatically enrolled in the Early Assessment Program (EAP), which the California State University (CSU) accepts as suitable evidence for college placement. No extra exam.

Taking it a step further, California's college system took the step of making all courses "credit bearing" to eliminate the notion of remedial coursework on a not-for-credit basis. Prior to the change, only a quarter of students clearly "placed out" of remedial coursework using the EAP in English, and the rate was considerably lower in math (see graph). Now students can get right to work learning for credit toward their graduation and their degree.

EAPresults2016 High school juniors demonstrate college readiness by taking the CAASPP tests.

A Miracle of Alignment

It might seem obvious that these tests are aligned between high school and college. Of course it makes sense for high school standards, college placement requirements, and standardized testing systems to be connected between California public high schools and the California State University, right? But it's not so simple. CSU is governed and funded separately from the K-12 system. No organizational mandate requires these systems to get along. It only happened because leaders made the move a priority over a long period of time. It actually took years to put this system into place. The Early Assessment Program serves as evidence that with persistence big systems really can be made to work together.

Students need help to get to college

A leaky bucket carries kids from kindergarten through college. Most fall out along the way.

A leaky bucket carries students from kindergarten through college. Most fall out along the way. Even those students who finish high school ready for college do not necessarily go to college. The school system is not necessarily set up to encourage them to do so. A student’s interest in college may not translate into action, especially without support.

Virtually all California high schools long ago reduced the number of college counselors on their staffs. California consistently ranks at or near the bottom in the ratio of students to counselors in American public schools. Even doubling the number of counselors would not bring California up to the average of other states. (See Lesson 8.2.)

These programs help advance students to college by directly and practically supporting them through the application process.

Under the Local Control Funding Formula (LCFF) there are no special funds set aside for college counseling. School districts have the power to invest in college counselors or other college-going strategies, but aren't required to do so. Some schools assign a faculty member to serve as a counselor. Others contract with a partner program such as AVID and College Summit. These programs focus on the nuts-and-bolts process of college application, admission and enrollment, helping students individually. They also work with high school faculty to help them develop a college-going culture among student peer groups. is a set of online and mobile apps to help high school students chart their path to college.

Lacking counselors, most school districts invest little or nothing in services to support students in the college-going process. It's a remarkable blind spot.

California's taxpayers invest tens of thousands of dollars in each student to support them through 13 years of K-12 education, but the system has no built-in incentive to support students as they advance Beyond 12. In 2017, the state took a small step by adding a college-going element to the California School Dashboard. Perhaps making this systemic point of failure more visible will spur school districts, counties, or community foundations to invest in reducing it.

Private college counseling has become a flourishing profession in California. Families that can afford it spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to get help with the process of applying to colleges and searching for sources of financial aid.

So what percentage of California’s high school students actually go to college?

An excellent question, which we will tackle in Lesson 9.8. First, let's explore a little bit about what it takes to answer questions like that. California's data systems for education are in a terrible condition.

Updated September 2017, March 2018, March 2019


What happens if a high school junior scores well on the CAASPP test?

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Questions & Comments

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user avatar
Susannah Baxendale March 22, 2019 at 3:54 pm
I was thrilled to learn of consortia between local community colleges and high schools to try to get the students up to speed in subjects BEFORE they got to college. Somehow taking the remedial course (or whatever they called them) in HS made sense and wasn't depressing. Getting to college and being told you don't have what it took and you need lots of remediation really has a negative effect on students. Since I know what a shock it can be to students to discover that the writing they got an A for in HS, merits them a C at best in college, I can imagine how much worse to be told you need remedial courses the moment you arrive.
user avatar
Susannah Baxendale March 22, 2019 at 3:50 pm
Our high school did have college counselors, but we found that they were adequate for CA schools only. They did bring in out-of-state schools for College Night which was good, but really were not helpful in suggesting out of state universities. Luckily my husband and I were prepared but I felt sad for all the students whose parents were not. I appreciate that in-state tuition is a factor, but many out-of-state universities want diversity which includes students from all over the country, and often will provide partial scholarships or other way to fund. So the argument that counselors need only focus on in-state institutions of higher learning is wrong in my opinion.
user avatar
Jeff Camp May 7, 2018 at 9:07 pm
CSU is moving to replace remedial (non-credit-bearing) courses with "stretch" or "co-requisite" courses that provide students with support, extra time AND credit. The terms refer to different designs, and are new enough that they could evolve. Still, it appears that some version of the idea will likely survive and expand. See more on EdSource.
user avatar
Carol Kocivar December 2, 2017 at 12:07 pm
A 2017 report by PPIC raises important issues abut college readiness:

"Far too many California students are falling off the pathway to and through college. At current rates of high school and college completion, only about 30 percent of California 9th graders will earn a bachelor’s degree, a rate that is insufficient for an economy that increasingly demands more highly educated workers."
user avatar
Iris December 1, 2017 at 6:56 pm
How can we find out where our school district fits in the college-readiness spectrum? Is there data we should be able to find on a website? Thanks
user avatar
Jeff Camp - Founder October 26, 2015 at 10:57 pm
California is no longer worst in the nation in its students-per-counselor ratio: Arizona is even worse.
user avatar
linda R June 12, 2014 at 12:33 pm
Can someone explain how CC math, removing algebra from the 8th grade for all but the top students, can possibly help kids do better on the EAP test? I don't understand it. The test goes through pre-calc; kids who take that as juniors do well on the test and those who take algebra 2 don't. How does adding a year of pre-algebra make capable kids more college ready?
You say this: "California’s adoption of the Common Core standards, with the goal of college- and career-readiness, represented an official commitment to raising the bar for all high school graduates." And also that underprepared students are more expensive to teach. Isn't making kids less prepared for science and engineering courses in college, requiring an extra full year of math and likely science, making them more expensive to teach? I just don't understand the logic.
user avatar
Mary Perry June 13, 2014 at 11:14 am
The Common Core math standards do not “remove algebra” for 8th graders, per se. They leave to districts the decision about how to configure students’ progress through the material covered in Algebra 1, Geometry and Algebra 2.

That said, a central objective embodied in the Common Core, is to prepare all students for success the first time they undertake algebra. In California’s prior rush to make Algebra 1 the default curriculum for 8th grade about 58% of students took the course, but half scored at the Basic or lower level on the STAR test. That was in 2011-12. Of even greater concern is that nearly half of all 9th graders took Algebra 1 the next year (including many who were repeating the course) and three-quarters of them scored at Basic or lower on the test. The goal of the Common Core is to have those students succeed in math not just take the class.

“Raising the bar for all students” does not, in my opinion, equate to holding back the most capable. Further, that is not what the new standards recommend. You’ll find that the standards suggest several approaches districts can use to accelerate the math sequence for their students who can benefit, enabling students to successfully complete Algebra 2 (or the equivalent) by the end of 10th grade. For more on this, I’d recommend you take a look at Lesson 6.4 at /rightstuff/stem/ including some of the resources cited.
user avatar
Sherry Schnell April 16, 2015 at 1:17 pm
Due to the drastic underfunding of public education in CA and the lack of resources in the classroom, I am very concerned that raising the bar for struggling students has very much resulted in holding back the most capable.

San Diego Unified provides sites with NO funding for gifted and talented education. Virtually ALL of the discretionary money at my daughters' elementary school is used for extra teaching support for struggling students. Struggling students are pulled out of the classroom and receive individual instruction at their level. That is a good thing. They need the support. But advanced students are special education students too and they are NOT provided instruction at their level.

Even the most experienced, talented and dedicated teachers cannot provide an accelerated program for advanced students when they've got 25 elementary students in their classroom and the focus is on making sure every student is at a standardized grade level. Grouping students by ability has gone out of vogue partially because research shows that struggling and grade level students perform better when there are advanced students in the classroom. But the same research shows that advanced students do not do as well if they are not grouped together and provided with a more challenging curriculum.
user avatar
Caryn-C September 15, 2017 at 8:41 am
Great comment, Sherry. GATE education is a sham bc funding went away. Not sure if that was a Great Recession decision but wouldn't be surprised. In our district, gifted children can choose to attend a different school site starting in 4th grade. How disruptive for families. Additionally, the program lasts just three years then they are integrated back into middle school. It's highly unusual for gifted and talented children to receive differentiated instruction bc there's only so much time in a teacher's day. My boys' teachers who do manage to provide differentiated instruction have earned a die-hard fan. I know it's tough but it makes all the difference.
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