Closing the High School-College Gap

February 23, 2006

States are making meaningful progress toward better connecting the standards and requirements of their public high school systems with the expectations and needs of local colleges and employers -- but they have far to go, according to a new report.

"Closing the Expectations Gap 2006," a report by Achieve, a nonprofit education group created by governors and business leaders, seeks to quantify how much progress officials in the 50 states have made in aligning their secondary and postsecondary systems since the National Governors Association's 2005 National Education Summit on High Schools.

The report finds a mixed picture. As of December 2005, only five states -- California, Indiana, Nebraska, New York and Wyoming -- said they had fully aligned the academic standards of their high schools with the demands of colleges and employers, and had higher education and business leaders in the state validate that alignment. (That is three states more than said they had done so before the summit, though Achieve noted that it had not reviewed the standards in Nebraska, New York or Wyoming to attest to their quality or rigor.) Another 30 states reported that they were working to align their standards, the report said.

Achieve identified what it called "significant" progress in states' requiring high school students to complete a curriculum that adequately prepares them for college and work. Since the summit, Achieve found, six states -- Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Oklahoma and South Dakota -- had enacted graduation requirements that included four years of rigorous English and mathematics at least through Algebra 2. They joined Arkansas and Texas, which had already done so by the time of the summit. Twelve other states reported planning to put such requirements in place, and seven others had raised their graduation requirements since the summit, but not to the level recommended by Achieve.

Relatively little progress had been made by the states in instituting high school assessment tests that are "rigorous enough to signal whether students are ready for college-level work," which, Achieve asserts, tends to lead colleges to "ignore the results of those tests and instead administer their own admissions and placement tests," sending a "mixed set of messages to students, parents and teachers." In six states, Achieve reported, statewide high school tests are also used for college admissions and placement, while eight states have tied college scholarships or financial aid to student performance on high school assessments. (On these measures, the report did not provide numbers from before the summit for comparative purposes.)

The Achieve report also found that relatively few states have successfully put in place longitudinal data systems that would allow policy makers to track their residents as they move throughout their educational system, from elementary through higher education, which is crucial, it says, to "the ability of states to hold high schools accountable for improving student transitions to college and work."

Three states, the report said, have such a data system in place now: Florida, Louisiana and Texas. Thirty others are in the process of building them.

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