February 27, 2013

What Tests Predict, And What They Don't

A new study of what high school achievement tests predict about the performance of California high school graduates in their first year at in-state community colleges has found "disturbing" achievement gaps. The study measured students' performance on the California Standards Test as high school juniors against their first year community college performance in four areas: the portion of the classes they took that transferable to the California State University system; the portion of remedial classes taken; and their grades in both types. In dramatically unsurprising findings (although many education studies find a great deal that is not surprising), the authors found that students with the best scores on the CST had higher grades their first year in community college and were enrolled in fewer remedial classes.

Also not surprising but nevertheless "disturbing" was that "Latino and black students [were] less likely than their Asian and white peers to take and pass transfer-level college courses." One finding that is quite interesting, however, is that "[r]egardless of their academic achievements in high school, Asian and white students consistently enroll in more transferable courses than their Latino and black counterparts do." In fact, as the following chart illustrates, whites and Asians in the bottom 25% of CST performance enroll in more transferable courses that blacks and Hispanics in the top 25%.

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The study, again not surprisingly, "was not able to determine what is causing those gaps," but the lead author, Michal Kurlaender, an associate professor at the University of California at Davis's School of Education, nevertheless suggested a litany of the usual suspects: blacks and Latinos were more likely to be the first in their families to attend college, probably attended less good high schools, and "shortcomings in placement tests, which might favor white students because of cultural bias." (What, no bias in favor of Asians on those tests?

It is revealing, and all too typical, that all these suggested explanations are external barriers or obstacles placed disproportionately in front of minority students. Perhaps it's time to look more closely at the students themselves. 

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