Education Chat

Quality Counts 2007: College and Career Readiness

David S. Spence, president of the Southern Regional Education Board, and our readers talked about state efforts to prepare students for the world beyond high school.
Sponsored by CDW-G

Jan. 10, 2007

Quality Counts 2007: College and Career Readiness

Guest: David S. Spence, president of the Southern Regional Education Board.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Welcome to today’s online chat with David S. Spence, president of the Southern Regional Education Board. David is our featured guest today and he will address questions about state efforts to prepare K-12 students for the world beyond high school.

What specific steps need to be taken by states and K-12 schools to prepare students for college and careers? Are the resources available to take those steps? And how can educators and states work together to share important lessons about college readiness?

David will address those and other questions during the chat. We have many questions waiting to be answered, so let’s get the discussion started ...

Question from Nagwa Hedayet, School Director, Hedayet Institute for Arabic Studies:
What are the most crucial skills we need to train our kids on and empower our students with for their career?

David S. Spence:
Nagwa, The most crucial skills, in my view, are the skills students need in order to learn at higher levels, whether in college or career-preparation programs. Again, the capacity to read with comprehension across academic disciplines, to write well, and to think logically, symbolically and abstractly (math), are fundamental to further learning, whether in an academic or applied context.

Question from Robert Paris, student,Chattanooga State Tech, Comm. College:
I would like to know what is the first step in getting at-risk youths and young adults interested in higher education.

David S. Spence:
Robert, you might arrange for students to associate personally with those who are seeing the benefits of higher education, especially those who started from similar backgrounds. Identifying these students early is crucial, and connecting them person-to-person with school or community adults on a mentoring basis is important. There are no shortcuts to this challenge.

Question from Carmen Andrews, Science Supervisor, Bristol Public Schools:
Articulation focus between K-12 education and post-secondary education typically focuses on what high schools can do to improve student readiness for college. Unfortunately by the time they reach high school, most students are seriously deficient in basic literacy and numeracy skills. What could you do to improve curriculum and instruction before students reach high school to ensure that their secondary instruction is not merely remedial, but meaningful, rigorous instruction that will make students well prepared for college work?

David S. Spence:
Carmen, while preparation for the next levels of education works its way up, the setting of standards works best by establishing what’s required at the higher levels and then “laddering” these standards down to the earlier educational levels. The biggest deficiency we still have in the college-readiness movement in ALL states is that we have not set clear standards for what students need to know and be able to do before they enter college. Without explicit college-readiness standards in reading, writing and math, set in understandable and measurable performance terms, there is nothing that can be mapped in a systematic way to grades 6-12. How can we expect all teachers in a state to teach to college-readiness standards if the state and all of postsecondary education in the state have not established one set of clear college-readiness standards?

Question from Sharon Elin:
Are high schools preparing students effectively for the use of technology in higher education and future careers? In my experience, many students know more about technology than teachers, but students’ use of the programs and hardware is limited to lightweight social networking and entertainment rather than to research, enlightenment, or education. How do you suggest we infuse technology in educational standards?

David S. Spence:
Sharon, ETS is doing good work in this area through its Information and Communication Technology literacy assessment, or ICT. It’s geared toward measuring the cognitive and technical skills students will need to succeed at postsecondary levels. The standards on which these assessments are based could be used to “map down” and infuse technology skills into high school standards, curriculum and assessments. This is a good example of how postsecondary standards can lead the process of revising high school standards to include college readiness.

Question from Nancy W. Manuel, Ph.D., Researcher, University of Louisiana at Lafayette:

Based on the typical placement of new education graduates (hires) in Title I schools where teachers generally teach the most challenging students with limited academic background experiences as well as those with possible brain dysfunctions what is the percent or number of teacher colleges with current undergraduate course work which adequately prepare students to meet job-related accountability issues?

David S. Spence:
Nancy, it is true that frequently the less-experienced or less-qualified teachers end up in the most challenging schools. I’m sure it varies, but my experience in California and in other states suggests that teacher-prep programs do address these challenges. The problem is that even with effective internships or practice-teaching programs, new teachers are novices at their profession. More and more states (California is a good example) are establishing robust, school-based induction programs to assist these new teachers. Contact the California State University system for more information.

Question from Paul Billingsley, VP of Higher Ed, American Education Corp:
A great deal of effort is directed toward preparing high school graduates for college entrance, while a signifcant number of first time college students, particularly at community colleges, are in their mid-late 20’s. What do you see are needs that are unique to this non-traditional first time college student, and what efforts are best addressing preparation for those students?

David S. Spence:
Paul, this is why there will always be a need for developmental or remedial or “refresher” kinds of education in postsecondary education, and why the college-readiness issue should never be confused with admissions. By helping substantially more high school graduates become ready for college, we do think that it will not only reduce the 60-to-70 percent rate of high school graduates who are not well-prepared for college work but also will help those who graduate from high school yet delay their entry into postsecondary education.

Question from Cheryl Busch, Special Educator and Job Coach Coordinator, Livonia High School, Livonia, NY:
Often at the state level, lofty and “4-year college bound” standards, which are assessed on a “traditional written” examination are handed down to the individual districts and then educators, with mandates to implement. As an eductor with almost 30 years experience, I have seen many programs and ideas come and go, some just renamed, and with each change, the requirements become more rigid and less child sensitive. What troubles me is when I first started teaching, the focus seemed to be on “individual success at the highest standard” and districts were allowed to structure educational opportunites based on a wide spectrum of “highest standards” in order to foster individual excellence, however now the focus seems to be that ALL students must achieve at a specific level/standard without regard to uniqueness. My question is, what can eductors do to make all students strive for their personal best, reaching for individual excellence, and not be made to feel inferior or be viewed as a failure if they do not fit “the mold”? Our society cannot exist on just college/university graduates. How can we get non college bound students to feel success and worthy when the “diploma” is often unattainable?

David S. Spence:
Cheryl, all students should have the opportunity and get the help they need to succeed in college and careers. Who is not “college-bound” or not isn’t always clear. This is why the focus on BOTH college and career readiness is important. Similar fundamental learning skills are needed to begin college study as the ones students need to benefit from career preparation or on-the-job training after high school. These skills define the capacity to learn further, and therefore focus on reading with comprehension, writing, and math, the latter of which helps students develop the ability to think logically, abstractly and symbolically. All students need these skills, whether they go far in postsecondary education or not. In the 16 SREB states, our leaders have passed regional education goals that call for states to help all students finish high school and to ensure that all high school graduates are well-prepared for college and careers. In today’s economy, most jobs of any type will require further study beyond high school.

Question from Ray Phelps North Hardin High Radcliff, Kentucky:
I think schools do a fairly good job of preparing students for college with AP,CP, classes and Careeer Clusters, etc, but not for life after high school for those not college bound. I think the powers that be do not know a lot that needs to be ?

David S. Spence:
Ray, all students need to develop the learning skills to succeed in meaningful careers, whether they go to college or not. You might look at the recent ACT study on the similarity among the skills needed by college-bound and career-oriented students. Many state and local education leaders need to do more to ensure that career-oriented students get the academic skills they will need, no doubt about it. SREB can provide states and school districts with additional help along these lines.

Question from Gerald R. Pitzl, Ph.D., Educational Consultant, New Mexico Public Education Department:
Isn’t this “getting the horse before the cart”? Let’s get them through high school first. Seventy percent graduation rate in the U.S? This incredible shortfall must be the crucial focus of inquiry.

David S. Spence:
Gerald, it’s not a “cart-and-horse” or “either-or” issue. Our goal as a nation must not be 100 percent proficiency for all students who graduate from high school. Instead, it should be that 100 percent of students graduate from high school proficient, with proficiency defined as readiness for college or careers or both. Our high school graduation rates nationally are awful, I agree, but completion without achievement and readiness is an empty result. We can do better at both completion and readiness if we are clear about what readiness means and then gear our schools toward meeting college-readiness standards.

Question from Joe Petrosino, Mid Career Student , Penn:
Vocational Technical education is undergoing vast reform. Where does Vo Tech ed fit into college and career readiness?

David S. Spence:
Joe, my organization, the Southern Regional Education Board, is a national leader in high school career-and-technical education reform through its High Schools That Work (HSTW) program. This program was founded on the belief that all students, whether in career- or academics-oriented high school programs, need to develop the same fundamental learning skills -- reading with comprehension, writing, math -- and at the same or similar performance levels as academically oriented students, signifying readiness for postsecondary study, whether it’s for career preparation or collegiate academic programs. Some students learn these key skills better in applied, “learn-by-doing” contexts than others who learn better through more abstract, academically-oriented settings. The key is that all students need to develop these skills.

Question from Dale Bendsak, Instructor, MCST:
Career and technical education (formerly known as vocational education) has traditionally been educations’ answer to career and college readiness. Over the past decade the model has been changing from shared-time to full-time where students receive both academic and vocational training at one location in an academy format. In your opinion, are the “new” academy models working? In what ways can they be improved?

David S. Spence:
Dale, the learning skills needed for both college and career readiness are substantially similar at their core -- reading with comprehension, writing and math. Some students learn these skills more effectively in an academic context, others in a career-and-technical education setting. The most successful joint academy models are those in which there is a true merging or blending of academics with applied learning, through which students’ skills are developed fully as part of the career-and-technical education curriculum. The less successful programs simply attempt to “bolt on” academic courses to career-oriented courses.

Question from Dr. Jose M. Aybar, Associate Vice Chancellor for Arts and Sciences, City Colleges of Chicago:
A significant body of research has been carried out over the past thirty years in the area of pedagogy. Little of this has been applied in higher education. The emphasis has been to address issues relating to the student, e.g., socio economic status, support services, etc. Isn’t it about time for academia to address the issue of teaching and learning directly? And second, alignment of the P-16 curriculum is a significant part of the current reform movement. There is no consensus at this point on what is “college readiness?” How do you envision that a national dialogue that includes non-academic stakeholders might be convened to shape such a definition? To wit, many states are just now beginning to grapple with this thought.

David S. Spence:
Jose, there is no consensus on college readiness nationally or even within states. This is the primary problem and challenge. While a national debate may help set the context for state-level decision making, the readiness issue really is a state challenge. It is proving very difficult just to get individual states to develop consensus across all public universities and community colleges within their borders on readiness standards. Gaining this consensus on a single set of standards is absolutely fundamental if clear signals about readiness are to be sent to all school teachers in a state. No state has accomplished this as yet. A few states are attempting to use scores on the ACT or SAT as readiness indicators. However, while they may correlate roughly with readiness in very general ways, they hardly convey readiness standards with the kind of transparent, explicit and performance-based clarity that can be used by school teachers in their classrooms.

Question from John Shacter, semi-retired engineer and still very active consultant and educator, Kingston, TN:
Why do we insist on assuming that the service poviders themselves -- like colleges of education -- have all of the answers to the challenge that you are wishing to meet? After all, aren’t these the folks who have been part of the basic problem rather than part of the solution?

I am actively working to improve the effectiveness of the educational system and players. But I am not a licensed educator.

What are you doing to open the minds of “the system” -- including Education Week?

David S. Spence:
John, nobody has all the answers. However, the college- and career-readiness problem is both a structural and organizational challenge. Getting all of postsecondary education in a state to agree on the same readiness standards, making the standards part of the state-adopted K-12 academic standards, including these standards fully as part of the state school assessments and accountability systems, and having teacher professional development (and new teacher-preparation programs) help teachers to know the standards and teach them in their classrooms are as much organizational as they are political challenges. The substance of the needed changes is very doable. Gaining statewide priority and consensus is hard.

Question from Rebecca D. Kaye, US Department of Education:
In your commentary, you mention the need for states to use high school assessments that measure student performance against college and career readiness standards. What other data do schools, districts and states need to collect to support increasing the proportion of students prepared for college and careers? How should these data be used?

David S. Spence:
Hello, Rebecca. States need to be able to follow individual students through high school, through postsecondary education and into the first stages of their careers so that they can gauge the effectiveness of their preK-20 education systems. Florida has done some work in this area and may be worth examining.

Comment from Nelda Clelland, adjunct math professor at Howard Community College and Community College of Baltimore County-Catonsville:
Mine is not a question but rather some comments. I teach Basic Math, Algebra/Geometry review, which are developmental courses, and Drug Calculations for Nurses and Paramedics, which is a college-level course. Many of my students cannot add positive and negative numbers, reduce a fraction, generate an equivalent fraction, convert back and forth between decimals and fractions, generate a percent. All of these basic skills are covered in the NCTM Math Standards and are supposed to be taught in the public schools. Some of my students have told me about high school math teachers that told them to “sit down and don’t ask me questions”. Many of my students that struggle with these basic skills are foreigners (mostly from African countries) who may not have been taught these skills in the first place. So there are at least two issues to be dealt with here: 1) make sure there are qualified teachers in the public schools who teach to the standards and are held accountable for the quality and effectiveness of their teaching 2) Evaluate students from other countries to establish a skill baseline and design a program that addresses their remedial math needs along with their English deficiencies (which gets in the way of understanding instructions).

Question from Emily Castleberry, Literacy Coordinator, UNC Center for Public Television:
What steps can schools take at the elementary, middle school and high school level, to better prepare students for a realistic and successful college experience?

David S. Spence:
Emily, schools can support the concept that college-readiness standards must be made explicit statewide and agreed to by all of postsecondary education, which will provide the basis for “laddering” these standards to each grade level, including high school and middle grades. This is a key point: That the college-readiness challenge must be dealt with systemically. Standards are best infused into schools from the top down, based on knowing where we want students to end up. Then, preparation can proceed successively and continuously by grade level toward these readiness standards. This is especially critical for reading, for which very few states have explicit standards by grade level, particularly in the middle grades and high school.

Question from Rose Snyder, Resource Teacher,Duval County Public Schools:
Will there be any attempt at alignment of this road map and standardized expectations with state achievement tests (e.g.FCAT)or will there be use of still other tests as the gatekeepers for entry?

David S. Spence:
Rose, once a state has agreed upon a single set of readiness standards in reading, writing and math, it is crucial that a state works to ensure that these standards are understood and emphasized in classrooms in every school. To the extent that a state has a significant state-run assessment and accountability system that teachers and schools (and students) see as influential, the readiness standards should be measured by these state tests.

In California, the Early Assessment Program (a joint program of the Cal State University and the California public schools) is a great example of the power of including the early testing of student readiness as part of a state’s high school assessment and accountability program. The state exams were used to measure readiness instead of other external tests because California teachers viewed these state end-of-course tests as very important. The choice of which assessments to use to give high school students and their teachers an early indication of readiness progress should be determined by which state tests most effectively convey the readiness standards and which tests get the most attention from teachers.

In my experience, other non-state-originated tests can be effective in assessing readiness only to the extent that these tests address the actual state K-12 standards or if the state adopts formally the standards of these external tests as part of the adopted state K-12 standards. However, states should guard against establishing or recognizing separate, overlaying sets of standards. School teachers and their students deserve one set of clear, performance-based, understandable readiness standards from the state.

The goal of the readiness movement is to help all students get ready for the 11th and 12th grades through effective classroom teaching and learning leading up to these grades. The really effective readiness programs (such as CSU’s EAP) will be those that use assessments as a vehicle for spotlighting key readiness standards and for helping teachers bring them into their classrooms.

Question from Kirstin McCarthy, Program Associate, Business Higher Education Forum:
What role do you see for corporations, foundations, and institutions of higher education in ensuring that all of our nation’s students graduate from high school college ready?

David S. Spence:
Kirstin, I am increasingly convinced that the keys to realigning this goal will flow from state-level policy and priority. Governors and especially state legislators need the support of all sectors in making high school completion and college readiness a priority for statewide action.

Question from Beverly Young, Assistant Vice Chancellor, California State University System:
How could the American Diploma Project be strengthened? It does not seem to include one of your critical suggestions--that the assessment used be aligned with K-12 standards and adopted curriculum. What approach would be better?

David S. Spence:
Beverly, the ADP is useful as a benchmarking tool against which states can compare their own standards to ensure that their readiness standards are of high quality. Achieve, the organization that runs the ADP and works with many states in promoting college/career readiness, would agree that once a state develops appropriate K-12 standards that indicate readiness, other steps need to be taken to ensure that students meet these standards. These steps include: adoption of the readiness standards as full components of the official state K-12 standards; adoption and use by all public postsecondary education as the common set of readiness standards in the state to be used for placement; inclusion in the state’s school assessment program; use of the assessment results for statewide school accountability; description of the readiness standards in performance terms so that classroom teachers know clearly the expected levels of student performance; and the support of new-teacher preparation and teacher professional development programs that help teachers use the standards effectively. As you know, these steps guided the development of the CSU EAP program.

Question from Paul J. Smith, Ed.D., Facilitator, Accelerated Learning Center (ACC), Little Rock School District:
Some school districts have not rehired secondary reading/math specialists who know how to remediate students? Rather than focusing on attempting to teach all secondary teachers to know and perform what remedial reading/math specialists used to do to rectify pupil reading/math skills, would it not be smart to hire back the teachers who already know how to do it? And if there are not enough reading/math specialists, shouldn’t colleges of education be persuaded to teach these skills to prospective secondary teachers to make the availability of reading/math specialists more prevalent? Granted that the teaching of remedial reading/math at the secondary level is more difficult than doing so in the primary schools. But just because it is more difficult, we cannot give up on secondary students?

David S. Spence:
Paul, let me respond with reference to reading, which is not addressed nearly as explicitly beginning in middle school and through high school as it is in elementary school. We know that reading is a skill that needs continuous development in successive grades to reach the level of reading comprehension skills students will need to be college-ready. The development of reading skills is the primary challenge in improving college/career readiness, and will require the efforts of both specialists and a whole range of classroom teachers in all content areas.

Question from Steven Boone, Coordinator Developmental Reading, Towson University:
Much of what is driving these initiatives is standardized testing. Given that research indicates High School GPA is the best predictor of college success, why are we continuing to recommend policy decisions on the basis of standardized testing which fails to adequately describe student performance in the schools and is clearly in need of remediation?

David S. Spence:
Steven, what we find in many states is that very high proportions of students with grade-point averages higher than 3.0 still need remedial education. We need common testing for placement/readiness because high school grades do not ensure readiness in terms of students meeting explicit performance expectations in reading, writing and math. Many high school grades apparently do not align with meeting these skills standards.

Question from Roy Larson, Counseling Specialist, Austin ISD:
The definition of college readiness varies from state to state and institution to institution: is anything being done to promote a common/national standard of college readiness?

David S. Spence:
Roy, I believe the state is the best and most practical context for promoting a common set of standards for college readiness. Even at the state level, I don’t count any state as having developed one set of standards for readiness that has been adopted by all of postsecondary education within the state. This step has to be accomplished before the other parts of the readiness agenda can proceed. Often, an obstacle to this consensus across all of postsecondary education is that these readiness standards are confused with admissions criteria. They are related but separate.

Question from Diane Loupe, journalist, The Sunday Paper in Atlanta:
The South has lagged in the cellar in education progress for years. Can you comment on the progress Southern states are making (or not making) in preparing students for college. Can you comment, in particular, on Georgia?

David S. Spence:
Diane, Georgia is one of the few states that is showing progress on a college-readiness agenda. Georgia is in the process of identifying readiness standards in reading, writing and math that will be adopted by all of postsecondary education. The state is now considering how these standards can be addressed as part of their high school testing program. Please give me a call and we can discuss this work in more detail.

Question from Annie Hall, reporter, Ohio State Lantern:
OH’s previous governor proposed and the legislature enacted a new CORE curriculum including more math and science in OH’s high schools. The new curricula is a requirement for entering any of OH’s four-year institutions of higher education.

Is it realistic to believe that the high school students can handle the tougher curriculum when they score so poorly on proficiency tests currently.

If they’re having trouble reading and writing, is it wise to raise the bar on college entrance requirements?

David S. Spence:
Annie, I’m all for students taking the “right courses” and increasingly gearing entrance to these courses. However, we know from states or systems that already require a rigorous set of courses that this is not a guarantee of students’ developing the key learning skills in reading, writing and math. Not only are required courses not enough, neither are grades in these courses. In addition to courses, we need to identify explicitly and emphasize the importance of having students meet these performance standards in all courses.

Question from John Emerson, Senior Manager of Education, Casey Family Programs, Seattle:
What readiness standards and preparation is appropriate for stduents desiring to attend career/voc/tech certificate programs after high school? How do we best promote this agenda?

David S. Spence:
John, the development of reading, writing and math skills --skills needed to learn at higher levels -- is fundamental for students seeking to further their education, whether in career-and-technical programs or in more academically-oriented collegiate programs. All students need to be able to read at high levels of comprehension.

Question from Christine Maidl Pribbenow, Researcher/Evaluator, UW-Madison:
When I completed my dissertation research in 1998-1999, PK-16 policy discussions were prevalent in a number of states-- WI, CA, CO and especially OR and WA. In your opinion, why did these debates quiet and will the Spellings Commission report bring this topic back into both the PK-12 and PSE realms?

David S. Spence:
Christine, I hope so. It will be up to the states. I, too, have found most of the P-16 efforts to be long on process and structure and very short on specific agenda and results. These P-16 initiatives need to be grounded in not only a specific agenda like college readiness, but oriented to a specific set of action steps that need to occur. Increasingly, we believe that state-level, statewide policymakers may need to jump-start this process.

Question from Gerald Morris, Board President and University Adjunct:
Do you believe that there is enough communication between the needs of the K12 student and the expectations of colleges and universities at the state level/

David S. Spence:
Gerald, this is the problem. In very few states has postsecondary education as a body communicated effectively with K-12 colleagues. Given the situation, how possibly can public school students and their teachers know specifically how to prepare for college? For too long, we have relied on mixed messages from individual colleges and universities within a state or on general scores on college admissions tests, which are not explicit enough about the exact performance levels needed in key learning skills such as reading and math.

Question from Ryan Hahn, Research Analyst, The Institute for Higher Education Policy:
Do you think that all states should set the same minimum standard in terms of coursework and testing in basic disciplines, e.g. math and science, and what should those minimum standards be? I am particularly interested in the minimum standard for mathematics achievement--should the bar be set at Algebra II, Trigonometry, or elsewhere? Thank you.

David S. Spence:
Ryan, I think that each state should define threshold readiness standards in reading, writing and math up to Algebra II. To the extent practical, states should use the standards benchmarking available through groups like Achieve and join together to share standards. However, at the very least, there should be these common threshold standards within each state.

Question from Joe Radding, Consultant, California Department of Education:
Does the current interest in the need to improve college-going rates and student preparation for college suggest that these issues are the “Sputnik” of our time? If so, how would you recommend that we engage policymakers and stakeholders in the critical discussions and decisions that are needed?

David S. Spence:
Joe, I do think that having anywhere from 60 to 70 percent of high school graduates nationwide not prepared for postsecondary study according to reasonable readiness standards is a national crisis. We can emphasize the importance of students’ getting either academic or career training at the postsecondary level and the real costs to states and to students by not having clear readiness standards infused throughout the public school curriculum. Also, I would stress that this is more of s structural and organizational problem that can be solved.

Question from Yolanda Ramirez, Lecturer, University of Texas Permian Basin:
Do you believe that the high-stakes testing and therefore teach-to-the-test curriculum now being employed ubiquitously, throughout Texas and the nation, helps or hinders college preparation? Why or why not?

David S. Spence:
Yolanda, I think tests that emphasize the standards and performance that are absolutely needed to be ready for college should be included as part of a state’s assessment and accountability system. I also think schools and students should be accountable for results and improved results. The form of the assessments is important. I have found that few high school tests that are “high stakes” for high school graduation can also address the higher kinds of standards needed for readiness. I know that Texas is now revisiting this assessment issue and is one of the states that has established legislative direction to the readiness issue.

Question from George D. Felan, University of North Texas Doctoral Candidate:
Should we as a nation strive for the goal that ALL students go to college? Why or why not? Theoretically, could we do such an endeavor when there are probably not enough college seats available anyhow.

David S. Spence:
George, all students need the skills to continue their learning after high school, whether to pursue collegiate education, preparation for a career, or to benefit from on-the-job training at some future point. And the learning skills needed for any one of these pursuits are very similar.

Question from Jim Licht, Curriculum Consultant, St. Clair Technical Education Center:
What are some ways that traditional K-12 and Career Education Centers can work together to ensure that students are career and college ready?

David S. Spence:
Jim, recognize that all students whether in traditional K-12 academic or career/technical education programs need to develop the same kinds of learning skills -- reading, writing and math. Moreover, the most effective ways of doing this in the career/technical programs are to find ways to merge the development of these learning skills into the career/technical courses, not just to add academic classes to the C/T programs.

Kevin Bushweller (Moderator):
Thank you for joining us for this informative chat. And a special thanks to our featured guest, David Spence, for taking time out of his busy schedule to offer his thoughts and insights.

This chat is now over. A transcript of the discussion will be posted shortly on

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