School & District Management

States Acting to Raise Bar on H.S. Skills

By Lynn Olson — February 21, 2006 6 min read

States are moving to close the gap between high school preparation and college and workforce readiness, but momentum is far greater in some policy areas than in others, a 50-state survey released this week shows.

At the National Education Summit on High Schools, held a year ago, state governors agreed to a broad set of actions needed to address the gap. Those include raising graduation requirements and academic standards, building stronger data and measurement systems, better preparing teachers, redesigning high schools structurally and academically, and holding both the K-12 and postsecondary systems accountable for results. (“High Schools in Limelight for Summit,” Feb. 23, 2005)

Since then, according to the report by the Washington-based Achieve Inc., which co-sponsored the summit with the National Governors Association, every state, plus Puerto Rico, has signed an NGA compact to improve data on high school graduation rates by agreeing to use a common method.

Twenty-six states, the report found, are taking part in a $23.6 million grant program through the NGA to support governor-led initiatives to improve high schools. And 10 national groups have launched the Data Quality Campaign to provide better information to state leaders on building high-quality data systems.

“Closing the Expectations Gap 2006: An Annual 50-State Progress Report on the Alignment of High School Policies With the Demands of College and Work” is posted by the Education Resources Information Center.

In addition, 22 states have joined with Achieve to form the American Diploma Project Network, which is committed to aligning high school standards, assessments, graduation requirements, and data and accountability systems with the demands of college and the workplace.

“The urgency to fix America’ s high schools has not dissipated,” said Dane Linn, the director of the NGA’s education division. “Governors clearly see high school redesign as a critical component to their states being economically competitive.”

The survey focuses on a subset of policies related to the diploma project’s work. It found that more than two-thirds of the states, for example, are moving to anchor their high school standards in the skills needed for college and work. But, so far, only five states—California, Indiana, New York, Nebraska, and Wyoming—report that they have actually completed that process, including verification from business and higher education officials that the standards reflect their skill demands.

“A breakthrough that we see occurring now in states is the more active involvement of the postsecondary community in all of this,” said Matthew Gandal, the executive vice president of Achieve, a nonprofit organization created by governors and business leaders to promote standards-based education.

Bolstering Readiness

A growing number of states have adopted policies to ensure that students graduate from college and are ready for the workplace.

*Click image to see the full chart

24diploma c1s

SOURCE: Achieve Inc.

“In our view, the expectations gap cannot be closed by high schools alone,” he said. “It’s important for the postsecondary community to step up to the plate, and we’re beginning to see that.”

Mr. Linn of the NGA noted that 29 states now have some semblance of a council in place to bring together policymakers from prekindergarten through postsecondary education, which is one of the non-negotiable elements for states to receive grants under the NGA’s High School Honors States grants program. “It’s clear that governors are taking a lead role in making sure that postsecondary education doesn’t escape responsibility for the high school agenda,” he said.

Many states also plan to require that all high school students complete a college- and work-ready curriculum that includes four years each of rigorous English and mathematics through at least Algebra 2. Since the summit, six states—Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, Oklahoma, and South Dakota—have adopted such graduation requirements, compared with just Arkansas and Texas before the summit.

Another 12 states report that they plan to put such requirements in place for all students in the future. Seven more states have raised their graduation requirements since the summit, although not to the level recommended by Achieve.

Less Activity on Tests

A federal study released last week shows that taking an intensive academic curriculum in high school is one of the best predictors of whether students ultimately earn a bachelor’s degree. But it warns that simply increasing the number of credits in the key subjects that students need to graduate is not enough. States also need, it says, to pay attention to the actual content of high school courses and how well it aligns with postsecondary expectations.

“As states raise course requirements,” the Achieve report advises, “they will need to put safeguards in place to ensure that the content of courses taught in high schools is consistently rigorous across the state, and that schools are not watering down those courses as more students are required to take them.”

The Achieve survey found far less activity on the testing front. Few states have current high school tests that are rigorous enough to signal whether students are ready for college or work, according to Achieve.

What’s more, few states report devising new 12th grade assessments that could provide such information. “As a result,” Achieve says, “colleges largely ignore the results of those tests and instead administer their own admissions and placement tests,” sending mixed messages to students, parents, and teachers.

The survey found that only six states—California, Colorado, Illinois, Maine, Missouri, and Texas—have state high school tests that are now used for college-admissions or -placement decisions. Eight additional states are pursuing that option.

The lack of activity is not surprising, Mr. Gandal said. “First things first: The right order of events is to define the expectations and get those right,” he said, “before you know what you want to measure through an assessment.”

Another eight states have tied college scholarships or financial aid to student performance on high school exams, and four others plan to establish such financial incentives.

The survey also found few efforts to hold either high schools or postsecondary institutions accountable for whether students make a smooth transition from one level of education to the next.

Only Oklahoma, for example, reports holding high schools responsible for the percent of graduates who require remedial instruction in college by including college remediation rates as one component of the state’s index used to judge high schools and K-12 districts. Fewer than half the states say that college remediation rates are reported publicly.

Most states, Mr. Gandal said, are still trying to devise a more accurate graduation rate. “Only a few have really begun to build in college and work readiness as an accountability goal,” he said. “We think that will pick up, but the pace won’t be nearly as fast as in some of these other areas.”

While many states are working on data systems that would let them track individual student progress from prekindergarten through postsecondary education, only three—Florida, Louisiana, and Texas—say they have such systems in place.

Work on Data

An additional 31 states say they are in the process of creating a pre-K-16 data system, or of linking their existing K-12 and higher education data systems. But the report cautions that in many states the pace of such initiatives is slow or nonexistent. The U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences has awarded $52.8 million in grants to 14 states to help with such efforts.

Such data systems, along with more rigorous high school tests, should help states make college and work readiness a key factor in high school accountability systems, the Achieve report says.

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Note: The Web version of this story includes figures updated from the original print version.
A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as States Acting To Raise Bar On H.S. Skills

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