Published Online: March 1, 2010

College and Career Standards Catching On in States

With President Barack Obama having recently proposed to tie federal aid for disadvantaged students to states’ adoption of “college- and career-ready” standards, a new report finds that the number of states that have such standards has mushroomed since 2005, and now stands at 31.

But the report, based on a survey of states, indicates that they have been slower to embrace assessments, high school graduation requirements, and, most especially, “comprehensive” accountability systems to match those standards.

“What started off as isolated efforts among individual states has become a national movement producing a national consensus: Standards must be aligned to college- and career-ready expectations,” says the report by Achieve, a Washington-based group formed by governors and business leaders. “In just five years, it has become the new norm.”

The report says that in 2005, when Achieve and the National Governors Association hosted a national summit on high schools, only three states had aligned their high school standards in English and mathematics with postsecondary and workplace expectations. Of the 31 now meeting that benchmark, eight joined the list over the past year: Alabama, Colorado, Florida, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oregon, South Carolina, and Virginia.

States appear to be more sluggish, however, in making related changes to help ensure that those standards matter for schools and students. For instance, only 14 administer what Achieve considers to be college- and career-ready assessments, though that number is considerably higher than the three who did so in 2005.

And only one state, Texas—with the passage of a law in 2009—currently meets the minimum criteria Achieve believes necessary to measure and provide incentives for college and career readiness. Those criteria include such factors as whether a state publicly reports the percentage of students who score at the college-ready level on assessments down to the school level, has set goals for increasing the percentage of students who do so, and has established incentives to reward states and districts who make gains toward the state goal.

“Progress on accountability has been slow in the states,” the report says. “Although many states have moved aggressively to raise standards, few have incorporated those standards into their high school accountability systems.”

Tougher Requirements

Last month, President Obama told the nation’s governors that he would like to make funding for districts under Title I—the flagship program of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—contingent on states’ adoption of reading and math standards that prepare students for college or a career.

That idea would be rolled into the administration’s still-emerging plan for reauthorizing the ESEA. More specifically, it would require states either to join with their counterparts in developing rigorous, common standards—a process Achieve is participating in—or work with their institutions of higher education to set standards that would ensure high school graduates are ready to enter higher education or the workforce.

The president’s plan has drawn criticism from national groups representing local education leaders and state lawmakers, though some governors and members of Congress appear to be open to the idea.

The Achieve report argues that the growing “national consensus” it sees around embracing the idea that all students must be prepared for college or a career has helped spur the Common Core State Standards Initiative, which is being led by the NGA and the Council of Chief State School Officers.

So far, 48 states—all but Alaska and Texas—have signed on to the common-core project, though it remains unclear how many will remain on board once the voluntary standards are final, likely later this year, and adopt them.

The Achieve study, “Closing the Expecations Gap 2010,” is its fifth annual report monitoring state progress on implementing a career- and college-ready agenda. The nonprofit organization began conducting the annual survey of states after it launched the American Diploma Project Network, a coalition of states committed to aligning their education systems with the demands of college and the workplace, at the 2005 summit.

The report finds that 20 states and the District of Columbia have adopted high school graduation requirements that compel all students to complete curricula that prepare them for college and a career, including four years of challenging mathematics—including a course equivalent to Algebra 2—and four years of grade-level English.

Sixteen states report that they have begun using P-20 data systems that annually match K-12 and postsecondary student-level data.

Sending the ‘Right Signals’

On the assessment front, the new report finds 14 states measuring college and career readiness, with four added over the past year: Alabama, Hawaii, Louisiana, and West Virginia. To meet the Achieve criteria, “states must have a component of their high school assessment system that measures all students on college- and career-ready content in English and mathematics,” the report says. “The assessment must have credibility with postsecondary institutions and employers, so that achieving a certain score signals being truly prepared for success after high school.”

Although the Achieve report finds a growing number of states to be making at least some progress on creating reporting and accountability systems anchored in college and career readiness, all but Texas fall short of the criteria Achieve has set to meet that benchmark.

The survey asked states whether they collect school-by-school data on a “fundamental set of college- and career-ready indicators and, more important, whether those indicators are used to drive improvement in schools and school systems.”

For instance, one indicator is the percentage of students who graduate with a college- or career-ready diploma as defined by the American Diploma Project, so that each state knows which students and groups of students are leaving high school with this credential and which are not.

Another is the percentage of high school graduates who, on entering a postsecondary institution, are placed into remedial courses in reading, writing, or math.

In terms of using such information for accountability purposes, states were asked whether they publicly report that data at the state and school level, set a statewide performance goal, and either provide incentives for schools and districts to improve or factor such improvement into the state accountability formula.

“Without a coordinated framework that sets the right expectations and sends the right signals,” the report says, “educators and school systems will not aim high enough for their students, and many will continue to leave our schools unprepared for their next steps.”

Vol. 29, Issue 24

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