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Published in Print: April 18, 2007, as Policy Push Redefining High School

Policy Push Redefining High School

State activities surge, but college readiness elusive.

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State activities to better prepare high school students for the demands of work and college spiked noticeably in the past year, according to a 50-state survey to be released this week.

A dozen states report aligning their academic standards for high schools with the expectations for college success, up from just five a year ago. Twenty-seven more states report that they are engaged in such activities.

Thirteen states now require students to complete a college-preparatory curriculum to earn a diploma; another 16 plan to adopt such requirements. And nearly every state reports that it has or is working on a data system to track the progress of individual students from preschool through college.

‘Real-World Demands’

“There’s been awareness building in a variety of ways for the need to have more rigorous expectations for high school graduation that really reflect the real-world demands students are going to face when they leave,” said Michael Cohen, the president of the Washington-based Achieve, which conducted the survey this past fall.

The nonprofit organization, formed by governors and business leaders, coordinates the America Diploma Project Network, an alliance of states committed to aligning high school expectations with college and work demands.

Since the 2005 National Education Summit on High Schools, which Achieve co-hosted with the Washington-based National Governors Association, the network has grown to 29 states. In addition, 26 states are working on governor-led initiatives to improve rates of high school graduation and college readiness, as part of a grants program coordinated by the NGA.

Less Progress on Tests

But the new report, “Closing the Expectations Gap 2007,” found that states have made far less progress in aligning their high school tests with the demands of work and college, or in holding high schools accountable for whether students graduate “college ready.”

Only nine states, for example, now give tests as part of their K-12 testing systems that are also used by higher education to place incoming students, up from five states last year.

And only nine states hold high schools accountable for whether their students graduate ready for college and work, for example by measuring the college-remediation rates of graduates.

Mr. Cohen said there’s a certain logic in getting standards and curricula right before changing tests and accountability systems. But he also said less clarity exists about what a good high school assessment and accountability system should look like.

“The assessment stuff is just harder,” said Laura McGiffert Slover, the director of content and policy research for Achieve. “There are more stakes attached, and it makes everybody more nervous.”

Nonetheless, the report asserts, without better assessments and incentives for schools, it’s unlikely the nation will see dramatic changes in its high schools, noting, “good standards are simply not enough; these other systemic pieces must be in place.”

ACT Eyes Standards

While the Achieve report found that many states are working to better align high school expectations with those needed for college and work, another report released this month, by the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc., the producer of the ACT college-admissions test, suggests there’s still a long way to go.

That report, based on a national curriculum survey of more than 6,500 middle school, high school, and postsecondary English, reading, mathematics, and science teachers, found that college professors generally want incoming students to have a deeper understanding of a selected number of topics and skills, while high school teachers in all content areas tend to rate a far broader array of content and skills as “important” or “very important.”

Cynthia B. Schmeiser, the president and chief operating officer of ACT’s education division, blamed the gap largely on state academic-content standards that high school teachers must follow.

Set of Policies Pursued

A growing number of states report having policies, either in place or in development, that are designed to help ensure that students graduate from high school ready for college and work.

“State learning standards are often too wide and not deep enough,” she said. “They are trying to cover too much ground—more ground than colleges deem necessary—in the limited time they have with students.”

The study, based on a National Curriculum Survey that the testing company has conducted periodically since the 1970s, surveyed middle and high school teachers about the specific content they are teaching in their courses and how important they rate that content compared with ratings by postsecondary instructors.

In general, the ACT survey found, college instructors take a dim view of their states’ academic-content standards for high schools. Nearly two-thirds of those respondents (65 percent) said their state standards prepare students “poorly” or “very poorly” for college-level work in their respective subjects. In contrast, a majority of high school teachers said their state standards are preparing students “well” or “very well” for college-level work.

Achieve has been working with 24 states to help them adopt high school content standards that meet college-readiness goals. Through that work, the group also identified some common gaps between K-12 content standards and what it sees as needed for college and workplace success.

While high school English standards and courses tend to emphasize literature and narrative writing, for example, college professors and business people want graduates who can read informational texts, conduct research, and use writing to inform or persuade others.

“It’s not that state standards are bad,” Ms. Slover said. “It’s that they don’t include a lot of the informational texts and real-life writing that students are going to have to do when they’re in work and college. So it’s a different emphasis.”

Maintaining Rigor

But even if states adopt college-prep standards and require a college-ready curriculum—which Achieve defines as including four years of math through at least Algebra 2, and four years of rigorous English—they need to ensure that actual courses reflect that content, according to the Achieve report.

“Otherwise,” it warns, “schools may water down the content or instruction in the more advanced courses as more students are required to take them.”

Partly for that reason, it found, 13 states have adopted end-of-course tests in high school and 16 more plan to develop such exams. Earlier this month, for example, Achieve announced that nine states have joined with it to create a common Algebra 2 exam. ("Nine States to Be Partners on Algebra 2 Assessment," April 11, 2007.)

Thirty-eight states also produce course-level standards, model curricula, or other instructional materials for schools to guide classroom instruction.

Mr. Cohen said the survey results suggest “a pretty impressive take-up rate” of a core set of ideas about college- and workforce-readiness “in a relatively short period of time.”

“I think it parallels the level of activity that followed the release of A Nation at Risk,” he said, referring to the report released during the Reagan administration that many argue helped propel the push for standards-based education.

Naomi G. Housman, the director of the Washington-based National High School Alliance at the Institute for Educational Leadership, agreed that the activity described in the report “is a good sign of life.”

But she worried about how states are coordinating all of their work, both on college readiness and on initiatives to improve instruction in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, or STEM.

“One of the things we need to attend to is how all these activities are integrated with one another and aligned with one another,” she said.

Vol. 26, Issue 33, Pages 1,20

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