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California State University San Marcos: Early Assessment and Early Start

This university provides an example of a system-supported placement policy that is integrated into state high schools beginning in the 11th grade and continues through the first year of college remediation. This approach allows students multiple opportunities to demonstrate college readiness. CSU San Marcos is considered an exemplary site within the CSU system for its well-supported placement process and effective Early Start summer programming. This case study provides a description of the placement process, supports, and lessons that can be applied to similar institutions and systems.

Methodology and Data Sources

Research for Action conducted eight campus site visits in the spring of 2016, so this case study provides an implementation snapshot from that point in time. Sites were selected based on state or system recommendations on leading institutions in multiple measures reform. Field work at CSU-San Marcos included interviews with 13 administrators, two faculty members, and two focus groups with students recently placed into coursework. Institutional documents and online resources were reviewed prior to field work. In addition, the institution provided internal analyses conducted on the impact of the Early Start program on college readiness. Once drafted, this case study was provided to the primary institutional contact for review and verification.

State or System Policy: High School Assessment to Improve Readiness

In 2004, the California State University (CSU) system and the California Department of Education (CDE) launched the Early Assessment Program (EAP), an early intervention strategy designed to assess and communicate college readiness to high school students in their junior year. Initially, the assessment was voluntary, but as of 2015, the state mandated that all high school juniors participate in the EAP as part of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASSPP), which covers both California high school standards and CSU placement standards. CSU sets EAP scores to indicate that students meet CSU college readiness standards.1

The placement policy dictates a process that begins in junior year of high school and concludes at the end of the freshman year of college at CSU, described in detail below. This extended timeline allows students to focus their senior year on becoming college ready. If a student’s junior-year EAP results do not demonstrate college readiness, classes taken the senior year, SAT, ACT and AP test scores, and previous community college course work are considered. If none of these indicate college readiness, an English Placement Test (EPT) and/or Entry Level Mathematics Placement Test (ELM) are administered once a student is admitted to a CSU campus. Students placed into more than one semester of remediation participate in a summer Early Start Program,2 during or after which students are re-tested to demonstrate college readiness. If students do not successfully demonstrate college readiness by the end of their freshman year at a CSU institution, they are unenrolled from the university and cannot return until their college readiness requirements are met elsewhere, such as in the community college system.

Institutional Context

Background: A diverse and growing comprehensive university

CSU San Marcos (CSUSM) was established in 1989 as a public comprehensive university focused “on the student as an active participant in the learning process.”3 CSUSM is a diverse institution and is classified as both a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI) and an Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander-Serving Institution (ANNAPISI).

Table 1. Student Characteristics at CSU San Marcos4

Impetus for Change: A need for improved rates of readiness

The EAP was developed in response to the high number of California students who needed remediation upon entering college. Broadly, its goals are to better align K-12 standards to college standards, to signal to students early if they are not college ready, and increase the number of California students ready to take college-level coursework.

Complementing the EAP is the Early Start Program, which has been implemented at all CSU campuses and is also available online. The Early Start Program is required for incoming students who have not fulfilled the Entry Level Math and/or English Placement Test proficiency requirements; it takes place the summer before freshman year. CSUSM is known for its exemplary Early Start Program because it has dramatically improved the institution’s first-year retention rates and has also increased its rate of successful remediation. This accomplishment is generally attributed to a dedicated office of “College Access, Readiness and Success Services” whose sole mission is to prepare students for successful completion of college-level coursework and support student success throughout their college careers.

Placement Process: Assessing in 11th Grade, Structured Coursework, and Opportunities to Re-test until College Ready

Course placement at CSUSM consists of a multi-tiered process that provides multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate college readiness, as outlined in Figure 1. Students could re-test during and after their summer Early Start Program.

Figure 1. CSU-SM Placement Process


The placement process begins when 11th grade students take the EAP exam, which is part of the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP). The “standard exceeded” score deems students college-ready and exempt from taking placement exams and remedial courses. A score of “standard met” deems them conditionally ready for college-level coursework. These “conditionally ready” students have the option to take pre-approved courses in their senior year of high school. Students who pass these senior year courses with a C or better are exempt from remediation. Students who are assessed at “standard nearly met” or “standard not met” take the Entry Level Mathematics (ELM) or English Placement Test (EPT) upon admission to a CSU campus, unless the ACT, SAT, AP, or IB scores or classes provide exemption. College-readiness cut scores for each of the measures are included in Table 2, below, as well as placement results based on the Entry Level Math (ELM) Test.

Table 2. College readiness cut scores for CSU placement measures

Student Supports for English and Math Placement

Students with ELM or EPT scores approaching but below the cut score are provided with a practice test and tutoring so they can prepare to retake the test and, potentially, pass out of the corresponding developmental course. Students who are not close to the cut score and are found deficient in both English and math are required to attend an Early Start Program. Early Start Programs vary from short online modules to intensive five-week transitional Summer Bridge programs; which type of program a student attends is based on a recommendation from the campus but is ultimately up to the individual student.

Students have the opportunity to retest to demonstrate college readiness after participating in an Early Start Program. Once retested, they are enrolled in either a college-level or remedial course for the fall. CSU students have one year to complete remedial courses in order to demonstrate college readiness. If they fail to do so and wish to remain in college, they are unenrolled from the CSU and must attend a community college.

The following additional processes are specific to either English or math placement:

  • English Placement: Students not exempt from taking the EPT are required to take it, even though CSUSM, unlike other CSU campuses, does not offer developmental English courses. If EPT results indicate that a student needs developmental English, the student is placed in a college-level English course in the fall semester. Students who do not pass must take the course, or a stretch version of the course, again in the spring semester; if necessary, they can also take it again in the summer. The most recent grade replaces all previous course grades. If students do not demonstrate their English proficiency within one year, they are withdrawn from the CSU system.
  • Math Placement: Students who do not pass the ELM exam are required to participate in an Early Start Program in the summer prior to their first fall semester of enrollment. These course sections are offered in the summer through Early Start and in half semesters during the fall to allow students multiple opportunities to move through the sequence. Students have the option to retake the ELM as many times as necessary. They may even take it mid-semester if an instructor feels that the student was misplaced. Students have one year to pass all math remediation and demonstrate proficiency or they are unenrolled from the CSU system.

Implementation and Impact

Through interviews and focus groups with over two dozen administrators, faculty, and students, we explored the longstanding system-wide placement policy and more recent campus-specific efforts to improve college readiness and placement. Through our inquiry, the following findings emerge:

  • Support for EAP and multiple measures was high, and respondents praised the multiple opportunities given to students to demonstrate college readiness. There was broad consensus that using more than one measure to place students was a better approach than using only one measure. Respondents also praised CSU’s policy for providing students with multiple opportunities for correct placement, which they felt led to a decrease in the number of students being placed incorrectly into remedial education.
  • Some remained concerned that the placement process still relies heavily on an array of standardized tests. Some faculty and administrators doubted the ability of standardized tests to fully assess college readiness, felt that students were “tested to death,” or expressed concerns that students may not understand the importance of the EAP in 11th grade or take it seriously. Respondents speculated that when students take the EAP their junior year, they may not be thinking of college, cognizant of the importance of proper placement, or invested in doing well on the exam.
  • CSU’s EAP policy was well supported by the system and enhanced by CSUSM’s dedicated office of College Access, Readiness and Success Services. The EAP program relies heavily on the partnership between CSU and the California Department of Education. The Chancellor’s Office sends high schools informational materials, such as fliers and posters, explaining the EAP policy. The Chancellor’s office also supports EAP coordinators who serve as liaisons between CSU campuses and local high school districts. This system-wide policy is implemented by CSUSM through its office of College Access, Readiness and Success Services, which communicates regularly with admitted students about the placement process and provides remediation support throughout the first year.
  • Student awareness of and response to the EAP policy and process was mixed; however, every student we interviewed but one felt they were properly placed. Student focus group participants were in 11th grade when the EAP exam was optional, and only one student remembered taking it. All students in the focus groups took the ACT, SAT and ELM, and EPT. Once admitted to CSUSM, they received communications from the College Access, Readiness and Success Services Office about the placement process, and students reported the office was available to answer questions by email and telephone. Students who participated in a summer Early Start Program at CSUSM commented on the effectiveness of the experience, saying it prepared them for the college experience and helped them advance through their remediation requirements more quickly. Although a number of students were confused about or unaware of the EAP exam, every student but one felt they were placed in an appropriate class.
  • CSUSM’s small size facilitated a high-touch approach to student placement, but participants had concerns about scaling up the process as the campus grows. CSUSM’s relatively small size facilitated communication between departments, offices, and students, and all offices worked together to support the initiative. However, multiple respondents indicated that rapid institutional growth may present future challenges. The institution is expected to double in size in the next 10-15 years, and administrators are in the process of considering what needs to be done to maintain the quality of the placement process. Respondents said that manpower and money were already strained and that more staff would be helpful. For example, scores have to be continuously updated by hand, and the EAP coordinator oversees relationships with 50-70 high schools. Because the institution provides a number of computer-based tests, there were also concerns about whether the institution would have enough computers to administer the tests as the student population grew.

Lessons for the Field: Collaboration, Opportunity and Support

Based on the placement process at CSUSM and the larger context of CSU placement policy, the following lessons may be applied in other states and institutions:

  • Effective communication and collaboration at every level, before a student arrives to college, is critical to the success of a multi-sector policy. The success of CSU’s placement policy relies on collaboration between the system, high schools, and individual campuses to effectively communicate the placement policy to students and high school staff.
  • Provide students with opportunities to demonstrate college readiness in high school and at multiple points during their first college semester. Giving students multiple opportunities to demonstrate college readiness, beginning in high school, allows them time to develop their skills before reaching college. CSU’s policy allows students to submit multiple tests and allows them to retest in the middle and end of their first semester of college.
  • Employ staff members solely dedicated to placement and remediation. CSUSM has its own proficiency services office, with six dedicated full-time staff members that begin working with students in 11th This office monitors and tracks student scores, communicates the requirements to students, and connects them with necessary supports. This dedicated office also clearly indicates to students and families who they should communicate with on campus.
  • A high-tech, high-touch approach to student communication improves understanding of the placement process. CSUSM communicates early and often with students to clarify the policy and process. The system sends literature and posters to high schools describing the placement policy, and funded EAP coordinators speak to high school students individually and in groups. Frequent communication continues at CSUSM, as the campus communicates the policy via email to applicants, calls students who have not submitted test scores, and answers phone calls from students and families.
  • Maintain positive language when discussing students who need additional testing and support. Faculty and administrators used positive language to describe students taking placement tests and developmental courses. Using non-judgmental language such as “Early Start” and “Personalized Academic Success Services (PASS)” to describe remedial support moved the institution away from a deficit-oriented perspective. Faculty and staff expressed confidence in students’ academic abilities and described remediation as a necessary extra step to student success.
  1. The California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP) uses the Smarter Balanced Summative Assessments —English language arts/literacy (ELA) and mathematics.
  2. The Early Start Program is a summer developmental education program for incoming students who do not demonstrate college readiness before coming to CSU.
  3. California State University San Marcos Mission, Vision & Values
  4. California State University-San Marcos Statistics