Great(er) Expectations

New report shows increases in number of states aligning high school and college curriculums and raising standards.
April 19, 2007

A state-by-state report outlining progress on aligning high school and college curriculums details a promising upswell in activity, with more states raising graduation requirements, administering college readiness tests and creating data systems that follow students from pre-kindergarten through college.

Yet, one critic cautioned that a lot of the “progress” may be superficial, and even those experts optimistic about the findings cited serious challenges ahead at a news conference Wednesday -- chief among them the challenges inherent in fostering greater collaboration between high school and college faculty.

Here are some of the key findings from “Closing the Expectations Gap 2007,” the second annual report on the topic from Achieve, Inc., a nonprofit organization created by governors and business leaders that formed the American Diploma Network, a coalition of 29 states dedicated to better alignment of college and high school standards, in 2005:

  • Thirteen states, an increase from two in 2005, require college and work-preparatory high school curriculums, defined by Achieve as four years of mathematics, at least through Algebra II, and four years of English. About half those states require such a curriculum for all students, while the other half make it a default option with an opt-out provision for students whose parents sign a waiver.
  • Twelve states say that their high school standards are aligned with college expectations, double the number from a year ago. In addition, 32 more states say they are in the process of aligning their standards, or have plans to do so. 
  • On the testing front, 9 states administer statewide tests used for college placement purposes, 21 other states have plans to incorporate exams gauging readiness for work and college in their statewide systems, and 18 states have plans to develop end-of-course assessments for advanced high school courses. The type of testing used for college placement purposes varies: two states (California and Texas) use comprehensive high school tests to measure college readiness, and six more (Colorado, Idaho, Illinois, Kentucky, Maine and Michigan) use college admissions tests, the ACT or the SAT. “New York,” the report notes, “is the only state in which postsecondary institutions find the state’s end-of-course high school tests -- the Regents Exams -- challenging enough to determine whether incoming students are prepared to enroll in credit-bearing courses.”
  • Nine states consider college readiness of graduates in high school accountability measurements -- tracking, for instance, the percentage of graduates completing a college-preparatory curriculum and numbers of students going to college and enrolling in remedial courses. 
  • Five states have P-16 databases in place to track student data from pre-kindergarten through college graduation. All but three states plan to develop the longitudinal databases.

“This is an area where states are the leaders,” Michael Cohen, Achieve’s president, said Wednesday.

“More states are making more progress than I thought possible," he said, referencing the comparatively low expectations Achieve set after forming the American Diploma Network two years ago.

Yet, Chester E. Finn, Jr., a senior fellow at the Hoover Institute and president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, took issue with Cohen’s positive take during Wednesday's event. “I think this glass is no more than a quarter full. We need to focus on how easy it is to be misled by what seems to be progress here,” Finn said -- citing, for instance, how easy it is for states to finagle standards, test scores, confidence intervals and assessments (so that, for instance, they test only the most basic components of even the most “gorgeous standards”).

“You can be aligned and still be very, very far behind,” said Finn, a former assistant secretary of education. He said, for instance, that while college and high school leaders may agree that all algebra students should know how to solve equations with two unknowns, and therefore “align” that particular standard, they may still have very different ideas about what counts as proficiency. On a 10-item test, Finn said, a college math professor might say a student would need to answer eight questions correctly; a high school teacher might say, "just a few."

Cohen responded that if tests are used for college placement purposes, college faculty would have greater weight in determining what might count as proficient. Yet, in many states, higher education and high school instructors “don’t even have a table to sit around,” said Cohen, who described the relative lack of collaboration as one of the greatest challenges faced by this movement. Higher education leaders, Cohen said, need to do more to define what it means to be college-ready, and maintain a consistent definition across public institutions -- without variation from one state university to the next.

“We’re merging two systems,” said Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers. “That will take a lot of work."


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