Test Center Spotlight: Lake Tahoe Community College

tasctestTASC Test Center Spotlight

Test Center Spotlight: Lake Tahoe Community College

In the world of adult education, it’s rare to have the opportunity to build an entire program from the ground up. In 2016, Frank Gerdeman, Director of Adult Education at Lake Tahoe Community College, began doing just that—working with a network of community partners, businesses, and educational organizations to create an innovative adult education program that serves the unique needs of a California resort town.

For this Test Center Spotlight, we explore how adult learners in Lake Tahoe are benefitting from this integrated community approach, including real-world training and apprenticeship, industry-specific boot camps, skills assessment with the Test of Adult Basic Education® (TABE), and high school equivalency (HSE) credentialing with the TASC Test Assessing Secondary Completion™.

To start, can you tell us about your adult education program and the people you serve?

Our program is unique in California in that we’re housed at the Lake Tahoe Community College, but we really belong to the community. Our program, called ADVANCE, is a collaborative network of community partners, programs, and services serving the South Lake Tahoe area. Our focus is on providing personalized learning experiences and training to help adults meet their educational and career goals, with the college acting as the central hub to integrate these services.

What groups are included in the ADVANCE network? How does this network model benefit adult learners in your community?

The ADVANCE network has four governing members—the El Dorado County Office of Education, Alpine County Unified School District, Lake Tahoe Unified School District, and Lake Tahoe Community College. Then we have a much larger group of network partners that meets monthly—everything from Health and Human Services to the Department of Rehabilitation, the Chamber of Commerce, and area employers. We really have built an integrated community partnership around adult education, workforce development, and economic participation.

One of our focuses is to make sure that when we talk about workforce development, we don’t forget that it’s really about the individual. We want to help our industry partners, as long as they’re willing to make sure they help their employees. That’s our view of economic participation and building a more engaged, vibrant community, which in a resort town like Tahoe has its own unique challenges.

Lake Tahoe is a unique community with a large tourism industry. How is your program tied to local workforce needs?

Certainly when we talk about industry-specific boot camps, courses of study, or even degrees at the college level, we’re really heavily weighted to culinary and hospitality—the two primary tourism sectors in South Lake Tahoe. There are about 30,000 year-round residents, and the state line (dividing California and Nevada) literally runs through town, with casinos on one side of the street and ski resorts on the other. Eighty percent of Nevada casino employees actually live on the California side.

One of the challenges of living in a resort town is the high cost of living, particularly for housing. How does that impact your students?

Of the homes in town, 78% are not the primary residence; they are second, third, or even fourth homes. A number of those are kept as short-term rentals, such as Airbnb, which means they’re not available for long-term housing. A typical long-term, one-bedroom rental home will start at $1,200 or $1,300. The average annual salary of the year-round resident in Lake Tahoe is about $28,000. By comparison, right behind where I live, they’re putting in a new micro neighborhood of middle-class housing that will start at $550,000. So really, our program comes down to building pathways that employers value that will allow residents in town to get a job, and more importantly, to increase wages at a job.

Your ADVANCE program is the first of its kind for Lake Tahoe. How did it come about?

Prior to the State of California deciding to re-envision how they spent adult education money, there was no adult school in Lake Tahoe and no adult education services other than the community college’s limited English as a Second Language (ESL) program and credit-recovery diploma program. At that time the college did offer a GED® prep class, but students had to drive 50 to 60 miles to other towns to take the test. The State of California decided to redistribute adult education funding and increase it from roughly $370 to $500 million. Our community now gets just under $900 thousand a year to provide adult education and workforce development services. Since there was no adult education school in Lake Tahoe at that time, the governing members decided that each member would get an appropriate allocation for the work they were doing plus some slight expansion funds, but the vast majority of the funds would be held at the consortium level to really build this new approach.

What made you choose TABE and the TASC test for the ADVANCE program?

We are big fans of helping push options into the State of California. When I was hired in 2016 to start building the new program for Lake Tahoe, one of the first things I did was to reach out to all three companies that offer high school equivalency (HSE) assessments. Data Recognition Corporation (DRC) (the company behind TABE and the TASC test) was not only the first one to get back to me, but the only one who was really serious about us. Tahoe is pretty small and we’re just a little corner of the state, but DRC quickly got back to me, and we met and became a TASC testing site. In June 2016, we administered the first ever HSE test in South Lake Tahoe.

We decided to go with TABE at the same time, in part because of my past experience as the State Director of Adult Education in Vermont, where I found TABE to be a little more rigorous. We all know there are ways that we can parse the data and the statistics, but in general, TABE includes more academic language. Because we’re housed at a community college, we recognize that post-secondary education and training—which includes not just college enrollment, but apprenticeships, short-term certificates, etc.—requires a higher level of reading comprehension. That level of more-rigorous academic language has always been important to me, to make sure we’re assessing adult learners prior to saying that they met a certain goal and are ready for the next step. My natural inclination was TABE, and the fact that DRC was first to respond to us cemented that deal.

We also use TABE Complete Language Assessment System–English (TABE CLAS–E) to pre- and post-assess all ESL students at the college, and to help guide placement into class levels. Prior to our new program and bringing in TABE, there was just an oral ESL assessment and a short, homegrown reading assessment.

Another reason we were able to go with TABE is that we don’t receive any Title II funding from WIOA (the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act). In the State of California, Title II funding brings with it a requirement to use CASAS as the adult basic skills assessment. In contrast, back in Vermont, one of the beliefs was that we could let the student goal drive the assessment instrument, so any federally approved vendor assessment could be used. But here in California, DRC is not yet the only approved assessment for Title II. Most adult education programs rely on Title II funding, so there was less willingness to have multiple assessments. But because Lake Tahoe didn’t have that existing structure, we were free to choose what we felt made the most sense for our program, and so we chose TABE.

So that’s how it all started, and that’s the uniqueness of Tahoe—not having a historical assessment provider, and wanting to build a system that’s more integrated than what the community had previously.

Do you offer adult education classes and training through your program?

That’s a great question, and I think we have a great answer, which we believe is a model for others. We actually serve as an incubator for new, expanded, and/or innovative programming. Our goal in terms of instruction is really much more about incubation, whether it’s industry-specific training or even basic skills. For example, we’ve built a 40-hour Culinary Boot Camp in partnership with our network of employers. Rather than design a course exclusively through the college, we flipped that script and reached out to the industry for their input. We went to the primary restaurant properties in town and said, “You are telling us you need employees; we can do a 40-hour program. What are the five skills that you want someone to have to move them from a dishwasher to a prep cook, or to walk in off the street as a prep cook? What are the 5 skills that you think we can teach in 40 hours?” They told us what they thought, we built a curriculum, they reviewed it, and we’ve been running the boot camp for about a year and a half now. It’s been very successful, and we’re now transitioning that boot camp over to the college. We’re incubating a similar program in Hospitality Management, and also exploring an Auto Mechanics program with the high school.

As another example, prior to our new ADVANCE program starting in 2016, the college offered HSE prep classes in Spanish every quarter but HSE prep in English was only offered once a year in the fall. So if a student came in November and needed to prep for the exam, they would have to wait almost a year to take the class the following fall, or prepare on their own. With our new program, we incubated and helped them expand the offering so that both of those HSE prep classes are now offered on a quarterly basis, and with a more open enrollment than they had previously.

Our objective is to incubate instructional practices and new programming, and then transition those practices and programs to either the K–12 district or the community college, since that’s where they’re much more sustainable over the long run.

Walk us through what happens when a student walks through your door with the goal of earning their HSE or getting a better job. What steps do they take? How does your program help them reach their goals?

A lot of folks come to us saying that they need to finish high school or get their HSE. We always make sure to ask, “Why? What do you want to do with that?” Our intent is that obtaining a high school credential isn’t necessarily a terminal point for the student in our program.

We have a process called RAP, which stands for Registration, Assessment, and Planning. We start with two days in a group setting, and then do a third session as a one-on-one individual planning process. During that first meeting we begin to clarify the student’s main goal and follow-up goals. The student completes some standard registration forms and takes the TABE Locator Test (to determine what level of TABE to use for the student). Then we do the TABE assessment. We also use an online personality and career interest survey called Traitify—it’s picture-based instead of word-based, so it’s more accessible to our adults with disabilities and non-native speakers.

You mentioned that you do one-on-one planning with students. What does that look like?

In addition to the community building and networking that we do, our primary role is to support each individual student. I have three full-time Transition Navigators on staff—they are sort of like adult life coaches who provide umbrella case management for students. Some of our students are WIOA participants, Department of Rehabilitation participants, and college students who need additional assistance. Each of those organizations provides some varying level of case management for their specific program, but holding all those different pieces together has always been the responsibility of the individual. Our Transition Navigators help the individual student hold all of that together, and build a plan based on their goals, their needs, their barriers, and their strengths.

You are a long-time user of TABE and also have the highest volume of TASC testing in the State of California. What do you feel is the purpose and benefit in using the tests together?

Certainly we trust the test vendor, DRC, in aligning the platforms. I think it’s probably less important to me and my staff as it is to the students who feel and understand that there’s a connection between the tests. Even if they don’t get the broader value of that initial TABE assessment, those who are looking for a high school credential understand that it gives them, and us, information to better prepare them for the TASC test, because of the connection. Anything that reduces test anxiety is always a win in our work, and I think that the obvious connection between the tests helps with that.

How is the TASC test administered at your center? What is the importance of having both a paper/pencil option and an online option?

One of the things I like about the TASC test is that it’s available in both online and paper/pencil formats. A number of our ESL students are still much more comfortable taking the test in the booklet versus on the computer (although we’re working on computer skills).

An advantage of the online format is that you can be much more flexible with scheduling the testing blocks, since the instructions are really about interacting with the platform and not the specific test given by the proctor. It’s also given us much more flexibility in meeting the needs of the students. We don’t have to limit the testing blocks to specific content areas, which gives the students a little more flexibility.

What I’m really excited about is the new TABE 11&12 on DRC INSIGHT™ (the online test delivery platform for both TABE and the TASC test). The real value of those assessments is that so much of the diagnostic profile work is going to be less labor-intensive for our staff. We’re looking forward to using TABE 11&12 on a much broader scale so that all of that information is available not just to us in planning, but also to the faculty and instructors when we refer students into classes. 

What is the importance of affordable pricing for your TASC test takers?

Our policy is that cost will never be a barrier. We work with each individual student based on what they can pay. Whether it’s the full amount, half the amount, $5, or nothing, we make sure that cost is never a barrier. We also do not have a local testing center fee. We only charge the cost of the test, plus the $20 per participant that the state of California requires.

In addition, one of the things we like being able to market to our community is that the TASC test is about half the price of the GED.

What motivates your students to earn their high school equivalency?

Often it’s a desire to go to college. Again, that’s usually met with us asking them why they want to do that. In the end, we find that it comes down to wanting a better job, a new job, or moving from the idea of a job to a career. All around, they want to be able to sustain themselves and their families in what is realistically a very expensive community to live in.

What does it mean to your students to pass the TASC test? What is the impact of earning their HSE?

Everyone has a story for what it means to them. Some folks are able to reach their goal to enlist in the military; for others, it’s the ability to enter credit-bearing college classes. The very first person in Tahoe who earned her HSE here had been coming to the non-credit HSE and ESL classes for about three-and-a-half years. Once she passed the test, it meant she could move right into credit-bearing college classes (and have them count toward a degree).

For some in our community, it means they are able to meet the requirements of a high school diploma at our local California Conservation Corps (CCC) residential facility. CCC is kind of like Job Corps, only it’s focused on things like trail maintenance, wildfire fighting, and other conservation-related work in California. They have a charter school inside their facility that works with Corpsmembers who didn’t finish high school. The charter school board decided that any of the high school equivalency tests could be used to meet content-specific proficiency. Our El Dorado County Office of Education also treats the test in the same way, as a demonstration of competency in subject areas. This means that people in their twenties and thirties who are working on a credit-recovery high school diploma can use the test for credit (in lieu of completing coursework). The impact of that for these students is the time they save—for example, it might mean having to complete fewer independent projects or spending six fewer weeks in the classroom. They’re instead able to spend that time with family, or at work, or on some other aspect of their lives. So it not only enables folks to move on, it also allows them to move around.

How do you recognize or celebrate your students’ achievements?

Because of our partnership with the local high school district and the county office of education, our TASC test completers actually get to walk in the alternative and adult program graduations at the high school. The superintendent is there and all of the alternative high school students are there; last year there were around 85 students, and 9 of them were ours. They do the caps and gowns, the ceremony on the football field, the music—the whole nine yards. We also celebrate when they complete the test, but it’s really nice that we can be part of that celebration with a larger group and with their families. It allows us to give those who are interested in walking across the stage the opportunity to do that.

Do you hear from students about how they’re doing after they leave your programs?

Just because they finish the TASC test doesn’t mean they leave us. Back to that idea of how we provide umbrella case management, I would say more times than not, completing the TASC test is just one of the steps that have been outlined in someone’s personal pathways plan with us. In reality, we hear back from them all the time. We stay connected with them whether it’s through the early stages of college enrollment, job fairs, career workshops, getting a job, getting a better job, or connecting to services in the community that they may need—either today or in a month from now. Again, while our small community is transient in many ways, most of our participants aren’t. They’re the long-term residents who work in the casinos, hotels, and restaurants; who work in the ski shops and operate the lifts; who didn’t finish high school but have bigger plans than just finishing high school.

What are you most passionate about with the work that you do in adult education? What motivates you personally?

In this particular program and community, I think there are two things. The first is what has always driven me in adult education, which is helping those who are very capable of improving their lives if they have the right support. We don’t all start from the same place—we do need differentiated services. We need personalized, differentiated pathways for connecting people who are clearly hardworking, engaged, and want to be more engaged; who want to be better compensated, to improve their self-confidence, and to be a better role model for their children. That is the primary driver for me.

That ties into the other thing that drives me here in Tahoe, which is bettering the community as a result of not just our work with individuals, but the network we create through the engagement of employers and engagement of county, state, and federal services. We’re building a full culinary registered apprenticeship program right now, which I believe will be the first in California, because of that engagement. This is going to take the idea of the TASC test as a progression to college to another level; now it’s also leading to college credit on the job, apprenticeship, and guaranteed wage progression from employers, because they value the partnership and network we’ve established.

Helping individuals and in turn building a better, more compassionate community—those are the two things that drive me personally.

Is there anything else we didn’t cover today that you want people to know about your program?

One of the things that excites me about working with DRC is having TABE and the TASC test connected to this larger, evolving world of assessment. (In addition to adult education assessments, DRC develops and administers K–12 assessments for numerous state departments of education and national consortia.) I think it presents some potential opportunities to adult education that typically don’t exist because historically, there hasn’t been a lot of interest in investing research money into doing something just for adults. If adult education could build off of and connect to the work being done in K–12 assessment, there could be opportunities there.

For example, DRC works with the WIDA Consortium to administer their national English language learner (ELL) assessment. I’m curious to see if there’s any sort of bleed over or collaboration between that WIDA work and TABE CLAS-E. I was really impressed with the changes that were coming out of WIDA when I was leaving my position in Vermont around 2015, including the online delivery platform for WIDA (DRC INSIGHT). How can what’s learned through the WIDA Consortium carry over into CLAS-E, in much the same way that it’s clear some of the Smarter Balanced Consortium work has found its way into DRC INSIGHT and the TASC test? For example, there have been accommodations coming out of the K–12 world that are making online tests accessible to more and more students. Seeing that happen now in the TASC test, and I know it’s happening in TABE, makes me excited to see if that same sort of work can happen in the CLAS-E world with WIDA.

The last thing I’ll say is that one of the benefits in Tahoe, and one of the things that brought me to this job, is the opportunity to build something from scratch. That’s very unusual in our work, especially in adult education. We are incredibly nimble and flexible, and I’d like to think my staff and I are fairly forward thinking. We are a great laboratory for experimenting with new ideas and beta testing them. We are happy to do that and eager to be part of work at that level. I’m excited to be a part of the TABE/TASC test story and a partner in the work.