English as a Second Language at California’s Community Colleges

Under AB 705, many colleges have eliminated prerequisites to college composition and now grant direct access to this course to all students, including ELs who graduated from a US high school. Indeed, through our scan of ESL course pathways we found about one-third of colleges where no ESL course was listed as a prerequisite to college composition. Partly in response to this change, faculty indicated that colleges are seeking ways to support ELs who go directly into college composition. These supports are discussed below.

The use of assessment tests declined significantly. Colleges can use tests approved by the Chancellor’s Office to assess an EL’s reading comprehension, sentence skills, grammar skills, listening skills, and/or writing skills (Lowe 2022). These tests are typically multiple choice and can be completed either on paper or on a computer (see Technical Appendix B for an example). The writing assessments usually ask students to respond to a writing prompt, which is typically scored by two or more graders. Some of these tests are locally developed by individual campuses or districts, but most are standardized placement tests acquired from a third-party vendor (e.g., Accuplacer or CELSA). Both categories of assessment tests must be submitted for approval by the Chancellor’s Office.

Prior to AB 705, colleges relied on a variety of measures to determine a student’s placement into the ESL sequence, but all colleges relied on assessment tests. In contrast, in 2021, only 30 percent of colleges with an ESL sequence did so. This decline is likely attributable to both AB 705 and the pandemic. However, the use of assessment tests is still much more common in ESL than in English, where assessment tests are banned. Some faculty have argued that these assessments are needed to properly assess the English language skills of English Learners.

However, ESL faculty and department chairs identified the shift away from assessment tests as one way their policy is aligned with AB 705. Although the use of approved ESL placement tests was extended to July 1, 2021, some colleges were already headed in the direction of lower reliance prior to the implementation of AB 705 in ESL.

In examining the characteristics of colleges reporting the use of assessment tests, we noted interesting patterns: colleges that reported using assessment tests were more likely to have longer ESL sequences (5.3 courses vs. 4.4 courses), more likely to enroll Asian students (13% vs. 9%), and more likely to enroll permanent residents (7% vs. 5%), compared to colleges that did not use this method (Technical Appendix Table B3).

Assessment cut scores still vary across colleges. We find continued variation in the scores that determine ESL placement; as a result, an EL’s starting point in the ESL sequence depends largely on the college that student attends. For example, at colleges that reported their cut scores for placing students into the ESL course one level below college composition, we found that scores ranged from 100 to 114 for the Accuplacer reading skills test, and 63 to 70 for the CELSA. Some colleges also use the assessment to place students into TLE or TLE-ESL courses. This means that a student with a score of 115 on the Accuplacer reading skills test at a college with no TLE-ESL course will be referred to ESL one level below college composition, while this same student would be referred to TLE-ESL at a college that does offer that option. We find similar variation in the minimum cut scores students need to access TLE-ESL courses (Technical Appendix Table B2).

The use of high school records more than doubled. Not surprisingly, given the language of the law and the changes to Title 5 regulations, AB 705 helped increase the use of high school data for ELs graduating from US high school and helped bring some consistency to the way it informs the placement decisions for this subset of ELs. Namely, between 2014 and 2021, we find that the use of high school records for ESL placement more than doubled under AB 705, increasing from 12 to 30 percent (Figure 5). Prior to AB 705, data from high school records as a placement measure was often supplementary—used alongside the assessment test scores. Additionally, some colleges used high school data as an input in a placement algorithm, while others used this data only when students challenged their assessment test results (Rodriguez et al. 2016). This is an important improvement that…

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