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California Higher Education Systems Pledge Common-Core Support

The leaders of the four branches of California's public and private higher education establishment have proclaimed their support of the Common Core State Standards and Smarter Balanced tests, saying that they are adjusting admission requirements and teacher-preparation programs to line up with the new expectations.

The announcement came in a letter signed by University of California President Janet Napolitano; California State University Chancellor Timothy P. White; Brice W. Harris, the chancellor of California's community college system; and Kristen F. Soares, the president of the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities.

"We believe California's implementation of the Common Core standards and aligned assessments has the potential to dramatically improve college readiness and help close the preparation gap that exists for California students," they said in their Aug. 29 letter to the state board of education.

They praised the "transforming promise" of the standards to help more students finish high school ready for college and work, and to better inform parents and teachers about how students are doing.

The English/language arts and mathematics portions of California's so-called "a-g" requirements—the course requirements students must meet to be eligible for admission to the Cal State and UC systems—have been "updated" to reflect common-core expectations, the letter said. It provided no details on the nature of those updates.

The letter is notable in part because the University of California, the most selective of the Golden State's higher education systems, remained silent four years ago when other segments of the state's higher-education world pledged to support the development of federally funded tests for the common core.

At the time, California was a member of the PARCC consortium; it has since become a leading member of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. To win grants from the U.S. Department of Education, both consortia had to show significant support from their member states' public higher education systems.

In PARCC's 2010 application for funding, Charles B. Reed, then-chancellor of the California State University system, committed to helping design the PARCC tests and working toward using them "as an indicator of students' readiness for placement in non-remedial, credit-bearing college-level coursework." A similar statement was supplied by the chancellor of state's network of community colleges. But the University of California system offered no such commitment.

Now it's one of the signatories of a letter proclaiming broad support for the aims of the standards, and for the assessments designed to reflect them.

In that letter, the higher-education leaders said they are involved in the current project by Smarter Balanced to establish cut scores on the test, which will make its debut in the spring of 2015.

"Our collaborative efforts will help ensure that the tests measure standards that our K-12 and higher education systems all agree address appropriate expectations for the preparation of high school graduates who are ready to succeed," the letter said.

Students who earn a "college ready" determination on the Smarter Balanced tests will be able to skip remedial courses and enroll in entry-level, credit-bearing work at college and university systems that agree to honor those scores for placement purposes. Which postsecondary institutions agree to do that depends in part on their views of the college-ready cut score that the consortium ultimately sets.

Currently, California students who choose to do so can use the state's Early Assessment Program to prove they are college ready and skip remedial work at community college and Cal State campuses. (The University of California doesn't participate in the EAP.) To do that, students must tack an extra segment onto the state's 11th grade standardized test. If they meet the appropriate cutoff score on the EAP portion of the test, they have the green light to sign up for credit-bearing, entry-level work. If they don't, they can take a bridge course during their senior year and try the test again.

The Smarter Balanced tests could eventually become the vehicle for the course-placement decisions currently based on the Early Assessment Program.

One potential hitch in the University of California's potential use of the Smarter Balanced test for course placement lies in the math standards. The UC system considers calculus an entry-level course. But in the common standards, that subject is covered in one of the so-called "plus standards"—available for students aiming for math or science majors, but not required, so not reflected in the Smarter Balanced exam. Without knowing how ready a student is for college-level calculus, it might be difficult for the UC system to use the Smarter Balanced college-readiness score to place students in those courses.

Yesterday, the California board of education approved a memorandum of understanding that seals its membership in Smarter Balanced now that it has become a unit of the University of California, Los Angeles. Since the U.S. Department of Education grants will soon expire, both consortia have revamped themselves to survive in the coming years so that they can revise and support the tests as necessary. PARCC became a nonprofit; Smarter Balanced teamed up with UCLA.

States now must pay to belong to the consortia and use their tests. As EdSource reports here, California's $28.6 million, over three years, is a key piece of the support Smarter Balanced needs to continue its work. The consortium announced that Hawaii, Idaho, Missouri, Montana, Oregon, South Dakota, and Washington have also signed the memorandums with UCLA. Similar moves are expected by other SBAC members in the coming weeks (although not from those who have already publicly acknowledged that they don't plan to use the tests this spring, such as Iowa, Michigan, North Carolina and Wyoming).

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