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Colleges Move To Match K-12 in Admissions

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Students in Oregon soon will need more than good grades and test scores to get into the states public colleges and universities.

By 2000, they will have to demonstrate that they can interpret statistical charts, conduct scientific experiments, and speak a foreign language, just for starters.

The new "proficiency-based admission standards," in six content areas, will replace grades, class rank, course credits, and fill-in-the-bubble test scores as the barometer of whether students have the skills and knowledge to succeed in college.

In a trial run this year, about 6,000 Oregon juniors and seniors at 30 high schools will be assessed based on the standards and could use the results in applying for admission.

"We're going to figure out how to make the system work," said David T. Conley, an assistant professor at the University of Oregon in Eugene, who is directing the new system, known as the PASS project.

Oregon is one of more than a half-dozen states revising their college-admission policies to reflect new standards, curricula, teaching methods, and tests guiding students' work in high school.

Officials in Oregon plan to abandon the traditional college-application procedures by the turn of the century, and other states--such as California, Colorado, Georgia, and Wisconsin--have launched pilot initiatives.

Still others are attempting to make their traditional admission requirements more rigorous. In turn, they are advising high schools about the competencies that incoming freshmen should have.

'Increasing Mismatch'

Observers highlight several reasons why state universities are feeling pressure to revisit their admission practices.

"There is an increasing mismatch between what higher education measures--Carnegie units, end-of-course grades, and scores on college-aptitude tests--and the direction of change in K-12," argued Kati Haycock, the director of the Washington-based Education Trust, which works on K-12 and postsecondary school reform.

As schools develop new standards for what students should know and be able to do, and new ways to measure and display that information, college-admission systems must follow suit, she said. Otherwise, parents may not see the need for classroom changes.

"Parents want some assurances that colleges will accept these new approaches as enabling admission," agreed John Barth, the director of education-policy studies for the National Governors' Association. "And if the colleges won't, these approaches will wither on the vine."

College officials also acknowledge that their traditional screening procedures may need a tune-up, as evidenced by the large number of incoming students who need remedial coursework. They hope that if colleges more clearly define what they expect of students, young people will enter higher education better prepared.

The assault on affirmative action and race-based admission policies is another factor forcing universities to look for alternatives that would recognize the skills and accomplishments of a broader range of students.

Wisconsin Forges Ahead

Last year, Wisconsin became a pioneer in competency-based admission.

Students from eight high schools were able to apply to any institution in the University of Wisconsin system by using an alternative reporting form that showed their achievement in five academic subjects.

Each high school determined what it would use to assess students' performance, ranging from samples of student work to teacher-designed tests. But all of the teachers were trained to rate proficiency on the same five-point scale.

Students from the participating schools submitted both the new forms and a traditional college application. Each applicant was screened on both measures.

The results showed that the two admission procedures overlap to a large degree. Of the 172 cases reviewed so far, 73 percent of students would have been admitted under either scheme, and 12 percent would have been rejected by both. But 15 percent of students gained admission under one system and not the other.

Researchers plan to track the performance of students admitted under the old and new systems to see if their college performance differs.

But Wisconsin does not plan to abandon its traditional application procedures entirely. "It's worked for a long time and serves most of our institutions just fine," said Larry Rubin, the senior academic planner for the University of Wisconsin system. "But we didn't want to stand in the way of high schools that were restructuring."

By next year, he predicted, it may be possible for any high school in the state to use the competency-based approach, if its teachers are trained.

Starting this fall, some students in Colorado and California also will be able to apply to college based on their demonstrated proficiency in the core academic subjects.

In Colorado, students from high schools that use nontraditional transcripts can gain automatic admission to all but two of the state's 11 public colleges and universities, as long as their high schools attest to their competency.

To participate in the three-year pilot program, high schools have to submit their content standards, samples of their transcripts, and descriptions of how they assess student performance to the Colorado Commission on Higher Education for approval.

So far, 14 high schools are participating and 20 more have expressed interest.

"We're going to accept these students unconditionally," said Sharon M. Samson, the academic officer for the higher education commission, "and then we're going to study their academic progress to find out their success rate."

Only the University of Colorado at Boulder and the Colorado School of Mines declined to participate. They cited concerns that they would not be able to distinguish among applicants.

In California, seniors from five high schools can apply to the University of California or California State University system this fall using nontraditional transcripts. Each of the participating high schools in the Transitions Project, sponsored by the California Center for School Restructuring, will design its own reporting form.

As in Wisconsin, the alternative process will supplement, not replace, more traditional admission criteria. And researchers will track students' performance over time.

Responding to State Law

In Washington state, the higher education coordinating board formed a task force on admission standards after lawmakers required high school students to graduate based on what they know and can do.

This month, the task force released draft standards for admission to college. Next, it will tackle how those competencies should be measured. Douglas Scrima, a senior policy associate for the coordinating board, said the standards ultimately would replace existing admission criteria.

On its way to a new route to apply to college, Georgia is raising its admission requirements.

By 2000, students will have to earn 16 college-preparatory credits to gain access to the state's two-year colleges, 18 for its regional universities, and 20 for its research universities. The state also has raised the combined grade-point averages and SAT scores required of students.

This year, the state plans to award grants to craft performance standards for high school graduation and college admission. Eventually, the new standards would replace admission based on Carnegie units.

Jan Kettlewell, the assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs for the Georgia board of regents, argued that intermediate steps were needed because creating a standards-based system "is a long-term proposition."

Higher education boards in Illinois and Ohio also are pondering changes in their admission procedures.

Truckloads of Portfolios?

But not everyone is enthusiastic about such changes. Some worry that the new admission standards will be too subjective, too costly, and too complicated to use for large numbers of applicants. And there are unanswered questions about how the new approaches would work across state lines.

Competitive colleges and universities also fear that the measures will fail to differentiate among students.

"In many of our heads, there's still a lurking suspicion that this is about truckloads of portfolios coming to our admission departments at some point in time," said Jan Sommerville, a research associate for the University of Maryland.

The State University of New York has drawn up guidelines for admission officers to use in considering portfolios and other nontraditional transcripts. But Charles A. Burns, the system's assistant provost for academic programs, said, "I don't believe that there's a college or state university in the system that's really ready for this."

A Hybrid Approach

At least one state is taking a hybrid approach. Maryland is developing end-of-course tests for high school students, which will be used to meet new graduation requirements that will take effect with the class of 2004.

A statewide council that includes the leaders of K-12 and higher education has been discussing common concerns. And faculty members from both the high schools and the colleges, as well as business leaders, have been reviewing the core learning goals for the high school assessments to determine whether they are appropriate and rigorous.

The goal, said Robert Rice, the executive director of the Maryland state board of education, is to devise a system that everybody trusts.

"Obviously, if high school graduation is based on an assessment of performance, then college admission needs to be based on a similar standard," argued Donald N. Langenberg, the chancellor of the University of Maryland system.

"This is not about the higher education system helping the K-12 system reform itself," he added. "This is a two-way street, and the effects on the higher education system will be as much, ultimately."

Classroom Changes

In working toward Oregon's new college-admission process, students in David J. Hamilton's physics classes at Franklin High School in Portland will have to design and conduct their own experiments this year as part of the PASS project.

"A lot of students choose not to take physics because they're afraid it will hurt their GPA," Mr. Hamilton said. "I'm really hoping that college-admission standards that require a high level of proficiency on the student's part will help students see that there is an advantage to taking physics courses."

"Also," he added, "it enables me, as a teacher, to maintain high standards, and make the course tough and challenging, and still not frighten kids away."

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