Diplomas Count 2008: School to College
Published Online: May 30, 2008
Published in Print: June 5, 2008, as Executive Summary

Executive Summary

As the nation struggles to close its graduation gap, Diplomas Count 2008 examines states' efforts to forge stronger connections between precollegiate and postsecondary education.

Young people on the road from high school to college face conflicting signals and too many offramps. While high schools require one set of courses and tests to graduate, for instance, colleges may have different expectations for what it takes to do college-level work.

In recent years, 38 states have formed what are typically known as “P-16” or “P-20” councils to bridge the divide between precollegiate and higher education.

Those groups bring together people from the various levels of education, from preschool (hence the “P”) to college or beyond (years 16 to 20), and often include representatives from state government, business, and the community.

The goal is to strengthen the ties between schools and postsecondary education and training so that more students successfully complete their journeys.

This year’s edition of Diplomas Count—a report by Education Week and the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center—examines the status of state P-16 councils and whether they can help smooth the road for young people on their way to productive work and citizenship.

Graduation Rates Inch Up

Of course, for students to succeed in college, they first need to graduate from high school.

Despite the vital importance of education to young people’s job prospects, Diplomas Count 2008 projects that 1.23 million students will fail to graduate from high school this year. The lowest graduation rates are among African-American, Hispanic, and Native American students.

Nationwide, about 71 percent of 9th graders make it to graduation four years later, according to data from 2005, the latest available. And that figure drops to 58 percent for Hispanics, 55 percent for African-Americans, and 51 percent for Native Americans.

Those rates improved slightly from 2004 to 2005 for all groups, but large gaps remain across states. While more than eight in 10 students graduate on time in Iowa, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and Wisconsin, for example, the proportion drops to fewer than six in 10 in the District of Columbia, Georgia, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, and South Carolina.

Analyses conducted for Diplomas Count by the EPE Research Center also continue to show wide disparities between state-reported graduation rates and the center’s estimates. Such disparities are one reason that the U.S. Department of Education proposed new rules this spring that would require all states to calculate graduation rates based on a uniform method that tracks cohorts of students as they progress through high school.

States would need to have those methods in place by the end of the 2012-13 school year. States, districts, and schools also would have to publish graduation rates for subgroups of students, and to use those results in calculating progress, to help close the kinds of gaps highlighted in this report.

For the first time in Diplomas Count’s three years of publication, this year’s report also includes graduation rates by U.S. congressional district so that federal lawmakers who craft and monitor such policies can better understand their importance.

P-16 Councils Widespread

Today, P-16 councils and their variants are one of the most popular vehicles for strengthening the connections between public schools and higher education, so that more young people make it through high school and into college and the workplace.

Acknowledgements

The research on P-16 councils in this year’s Diplomas Count report is the product of a collaboration involving Editorial Projects in Education, the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, and the Education Commission of the States. The NCPPHE supported the case studies conducted in Arizona, Kentucky, and Rhode Island and compiled background research on P-16 councils. We acknowledge and thank the individuals participating in this work on behalf of the NCPPHE, including Patrick M. Callan, Joni E. Finney, Michael W. Kirst, Nancy B. Shulock, and Michael D. Usdan, as well as Jonathan Felder, Heather Jack, Lori King, and Gail Moore. In addition, Diplomas Count includes a special presentation of state-by-state information about P-16 councils, derived primarily from the ECS Database on P-16 and P-20 Councils. We acknowledge and thank Jennifer Dounay of the ECS for her efforts in compiling the data, and her colleagues Roger Sampson and Kathy Christie for their support.

This year’s Diplomas Count draws on a 50-state database on such councils compiled by the Denver-based Education Commission of the States. It also includes case studies of three such councils—in Arizona, Kentucky, and Rhode Island—conducted by Education Week and the EPE Research Center in collaboration with the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, based in San Jose, Calif.

The ECS Database on P-16 and P-20 Councils shows:

• More than half the 40 councils now in existence have been formed since 2005, with four states—Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, and Maine—creating councils just this year.

• Governors established such councils by executive order in 12 states, 13 councils were authorized by state legislatures, and two councils were formed by state board of education resolutions. The remaining councils are strictly voluntary gatherings with no legal authorization.

• The agency responsible for coordinating the work of the councils varies, with such work most typically falling to the state education department, a postsecondary education agency, and the governor’s office, alone or in combination. Rarely do agencies responsible for early learning or workforce development play a leadership role.

• The councils range in size from five members in Missouri to 52 in California. Their membership may include representatives of the state agencies and boards for early-childhood, K-12, and higher education; community college and university presidents; governors and state legislators; and business and community leaders.

• Nine states also have local or regional councils in addition to a statewide body.

As the report stresses, however, simply creating a P-16 or P-20 council doesn’t guarantee progress in aligning high school and college expectations, curricula, assessments, and financing.

Experts suggest that for such councils to be effective, they need to focus on a few, high-leverage priorities; meet regularly; dedicate money and staff time to keep the agenda moving forward between meetings; and set performance goals and publicly report on their progress. Those themes are stressed in three guest commentaries in the report.

As shown by the ECS database, the councils as a group focus on a wide range of policy areas, including early learning, graduation requirements, teacher quality, and data systems that span prekindergarten to college. Only five councils reported activity in six or more specific policy areas, suggesting that most councils target their efforts to a few goals.

And while 29 states have councils that meet at least quarterly, only 21 states have dedicated at least half a full-time employee to focus on the council’s agenda; and only 26 states have secured financing for their councils beyond the in-kind contributions of state agencies.

Perhaps the biggest opportunity for improvement, the research for Diplomas Count suggests, is in setting performance goals and publicly reporting on progress, without which it is hard to assess the councils’ work.

According to the ECS, only 18 states have P-16 performance goals set by or for their councils.

Councils are trying to make information about their work public. Thirty-six of the 40 P-16 councils have a Web presence. But councils and their key membership agencies vary widely in what they post online, an analysis by the EPE Research Center found. While three-quarters post mission statements and two-thirds post membership lists, for example, fewer than half post their meeting agendas or the minutes of past meetings.

What It Takes

This year’s Diplomas Count also looks at states’ efforts to define what they mean by college and work readiness and establish other graduation-related policies. In a 50-state survey, the EPE research center found:

• Fifteen states have a definition of college readiness—typically based on high school course requirements or content standards—and 12 more are working on one.

• Twenty-six states have a definition of work readiness, and eight more are working on one. Most of those definitions emphasize standards for career and technical education and skills.

• States, on average, require 20.6 course credits for students to earn a high school diploma, with 24 states offering advanced recognition to students who exceed standard graduation requirements.

• Twenty-three states now require students to pass an exit exam to earn a diploma. In 19 of those states, the exams are based on standards at the 10th grade level or higher.

—THE EDITORS

Vol. 27, Issue 40, Pages 3-4

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Diplomas Count is produced with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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