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Defining 'College Ready,' Nationally

September 21, 2009

That too many young people come out of high school ill-prepared for college or the work force is little disputed. The questions of why that's so and how to fix the situation, however, have too often resulted in finger pointing, with many college faculty members complaining that high schools are asking too little of their students and high school officials saying that colleges send mixed signals about what they want students to be able to do.

The stagnation and even deterioration created by that logjam has contributed to the situation in which the United States now finds itself: sliding down the list of countries in the proportion of young adults with college credentials, prompting President Obama and others to propose investing tens of billions of dollars to get more people into and out of college. But despite a lot of talk, the "holy grail" solution to the preparation problem -- better aligning high school and college curriculums so that more students leave K-12 ready to do college work or with work-ready skills -- has often seemed out of reach.

Today represents a milestone, though, for a potential breakthrough that could have major implications for higher education. The Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association have released common standards for core curriculums in mathematics and reading and writing that, because of a confluence of events, could create a set of widely embraced national (but not federal) standards for what high school students need to know to be "college ready" or to have the skills to enter the work force. (Comments are invited through October 21.)

All states but Texas and Alaska have signed on to the groups' Common Core Standards Initiative, the federal government has tied participation in the project to qualifying for a huge new pool of federal funds for school districts, and the American Council on Education (in conjunction with scholarly societies) is organizing teams of college faculty members to review the standards. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to correct an error.)

While the process of stitching the standards down into high school curriculums and linking them upwards to colleges' admissions or placement policies will take years, K-12 and higher education experts who have toiled in this terrain for years describe the development of the core standards as clearing a major hurdle.

"This is the first time the K-12 people have stood up and said, 'College readiness is our goal,' " says Kati Haycock, president of Education Trust, which advocates for low-income students. "Higher ed people ought not to underestimate how big a deal this is."

"Progress in this area has been painfully slow, and it is a very long road from agreeing on standards to fully implementing them and ultimately assessing their effectiveness," says Molly Corbett Broad, president of the American Council on Education. "But every journey starts with a first important step, and this is the first time we have seen this kind of momentum."

Getting to This Point

The formal process of developing national standards may be just coming into public view, but serious work on improving the college readiness of high school students has been underway for more than a decade.

"Back in 1990s, it started being clear to us that a whole lot of kids who were following all the rules and doing fine on exams in high school were entering college and finding themselves having to take remedial courses and learning things they should have learned in high school," says Haycock. That suggested a clear lack of "alignment" between what students were learning in high school and what they were expected to be able to do once they got to college.

To attack that problem, Education Trust in 2001 teamed up with the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and Achieve, Inc., to create the American Diploma Project. Its goal was to bring governors, state superintendents of education, business executives and college leaders in a state together to raise high school standards and align them with the requirements of colleges and employers.

The focus was on states for a variety of reasons, but not least because of the opposition that can arise among states' rights advocates whenever talk turns to creating "national" standards in education -- since "national" often equates to "federal."

State by state, in 35 of them, teams of officials have worked through the American Diploma Project to develop high school standards that have been approved by college faculty members and have buy-in from public colleges -- which in various ways have sought to connect their own admissions or placement standards to the high school goals.

The state-by-state progress has been useful, but the international data showing slippage in the United States' standing prompted groups to redouble their efforts to find a more cohesive approach, says Scott Montgomery, deputy executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. "It struck us that other countries that have national curriculums have advantages over us," he says. "We asked, what could we legitimately do in that regard that was state-led, not federally led, that would increase rigor, and that would aim to make people college ready?"

Despite its state-by-state focus, the American Diploma Project provided a ready-made head start toward a common national curriculum. That's because the individual state groups used as one of their key starting points a set of benchmarks developed by the diploma project, such that "the results of the state processes had way more in common" than they had differences, says Haycock of Education Trust.

"That foundation allowed people to start dreaming that this was a moment to actually go to common nationwide standards," she adds.

The school officers' group and the National Governors Association announced the formal creation of the common standards effort in June, in conjunction not only with Achieve but with ACT, Inc., and the College Board, too. (Note: This paragraph has been updated from an earlier version to correct an error.)

Backing From Washington

That effort has received a big push from another source: the Obama administration. Although direct involvement by the federal government could be a death knell for many school-based initiatives, given the pushback from local school boards against involvement in curriculum setting, the administration has lent its weight to the project with its favored tool: money.

As part of the economic stimulus legislation that Congress enacted last winter, Education Secretary Arne Duncan agreed to set aside $350 million (as part of the administration's Race to the Top fund) for states to develop new tests and other measures tied to the Common Standards initiative. More fundamentally, the rules for states to participate in the $4.35 billion Race to the Top fund (which is designed to stimulate innovation among high schools) require that states join the Common Standards effort to tap into the federal money.

The tight timeline for distributing the federal stimulus money has sped up the process for implementing the core standards initiative. The second draft of the standards (which update earlier drafts for mathematics and reading/writing and were developed by panels of educators, including some university professors) will, upon their release today, be reviewed by panels quickly convened by the American Council on Education based on advice from the Modern Language Association and the Conference Board of the Mathematical Sciences.

"We felt it was really important that faculty around the country see that the standards were reviewed by organizations that had credence and in a way that was independent" of the groups that created the standards, said Jacqueline E. King, assistant vice president for policy analysis at ACE.

Once the national standards have been agreed on, an enormous amount of work remains to be done by the Common Standards project to "back map" the standards down through the secondary and elementary school grades, so that teachers in various grades know what they need to do to keep their students on track to meet the standards by the time they near high school graduation -- and students can tell at various steps along the way whether they're on track.

At the same time, to make the standards meaningful for students once they leave high school, colleges will need to decide if and how they want to use the guidelines in their own policies. Exactly what that looks like will vary from state to state and probably institution to institution, says Haycock of Education Trust, because of the great variation in the expectations at more and less selective public colleges, two-year and four-year.

Some may use the core standards as placement tools, says King of ACE, like the California State University System has done with its Early Assessment Program to gauge the college readiness of 11th graders in the state. Other institutions may adapt their course requirements for admissions to ensure that they match those that the Common Standards effort has deemed to make students "college ready."

The standards are not designed to be used to create admissions tests, says Haycock of Education Trust, because they are focused on content (what students should know and be able to do) not performance (how well they do those things). But as higher education administrators and professors and faculty members have blamed high school teachers for producing too many students who can't do college-level work, K-12 instructors have sometimes bristled because of the wide variation in how different colleges define quality.

"What the teachers are saying is, 'We'll step up, but you can't hold us accountable for multiple different definitions of what we need to step up to,' " Haycock says.

"There's a different standard for credit bearing work in English at [the University of California at] Berkeley and at a California community college," she says. "But you can decide that certain students are entering with weaker writing skills than others, and that they can and should do something else. The goal here is to get to a common and high standard that should be sufficient to allow students to get to the next step."

 

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