Special Report

Beyond a Focus on Graduation

By Catherine Gewertz — June 05, 2009 14 min read
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At a time when only seven in 10 American students graduate from high school in four years, an ambitious new president is demanding that the nation raise its educational sights even higher.

“[E]very American will need to get more than a high school diploma,” Barack Obama said in a speech to Congress shortly after taking office. “And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It’s not just quitting on yourself, it’s quitting on your country.”

President Obama called for all Americans to commit to at least one year of education after high school, and for the United States to retake its place in the global education arena by boasting the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020.

The heightened rhetoric around college-going reflects a growing consensus among policymakers that some form of postsecondary education is crucial to students’ success after high school. That view implicitly changes high schools’ mission from simply graduating students to ensuring they are prepared for the next tier of study, whether it is in two- or four-year colleges, or in technical or career coursework.

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What it means to be ready to attend college, however, is open to argument, with no firm consensus on how to measure college readiness or ensure that all students clear such a bar. Moreover, observers point out, schools aren’t equally equipped to help students navigate the complex process of getting accepted to and paying for college. Those tasks pose particular stumbling blocks for low-income youths, who generally lack the family supports that children of college-educated, middle-class parents enjoy.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan sees college success as inherently linked to systemic improvements in K-12 schools. He defines college readiness as being able to do entry-level, credit-bearing work from day one.

“You want students being able to walk in [to college] and be successful in college work,” he said in a recent interview. “Ideally, as we raise the bar on the K-12 side, we should be working colleges out of the remediation business.”

Bully Pulpit and Dollars

While rhetoric itself can be powerful, President Obama and his allies can employ more than just a bully pulpit in pressing for greater college preparedness. Under the $787 billion stimulus package enacted in February to help steady the economy, new federal money is flowing to states, in part to bolster their education spending. Guidelines for the money encourage spending on four types of education improvements, including adoption of “rigorous college- and career-ready standards.”

The high priority the president places on college preparedness, combined with the extra money and a Democratic-controlled Congress, has led some experts to see an unparalleled opportunity to advance work designed not just to get more students across the graduation threshold, but to ensure that they are skilled enough to tackle higher-level work.

College-Going and Family Income

Students with low achievement levels, but high family incomes, are more than twice as likely to attend college as low-income students with poor grades. The gap between the two groups of students narrows as achievement levels rise.


SOURCE: The Education Trust

“If you are interested in this topic, this is the moment,” David T. Conley, a University of Oregon professor of educational leadership and policy who is a longtime leading scholar on college readiness, said at an April meeting of educators and policymakers about college readiness. “The next six to 18 months can change the framework on this issue.”

The focus on college readiness is sharpening after years of concern about high school completion. That earlier policy emphasis led to unprecedented attention to improving graduation rates, including a 2005 agreement by all the nation’s governors to measure them the same way: by calculating what proportion of each entering class earns diplomas four years later.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, which became law in 2002, echoed the message that graduation was the goal: It judges high schools only by their test scores and graduation rates, not by how well their students do after they turn in their caps and gowns.

But educators and other experts dispute the tacit assumption that high school completion equals preparation for further study. Studies of college remediation rates show that holding a diploma often doesn’t signify college readiness. And far too few college freshmen go on to earn degrees.

As a result, education reformers are increasingly calling for longer timelines in judging secondary schools. If it’s true that a growing number of future jobs will demand some postsecondary training, they argue, then “some college for all” must be the new mantra, just as President Obama is urging. High schools must then be held accountable not just for how many students they graduate, but also for how well they prepare students for their next course of study.

‘College Proficiency’

Mindful that No Child Left Behind awaits reauthorization, many of those advocates are pushing for the revamped law to appraise high schools in part on indicators such as how many students enroll in two- or four-colleges, and how well they do in entry-level credit-bearing coursework there, a widely used definition of college readiness.

College Summit, a Washington-based nonprofit group that helps schools improve their college-going rates, argued in a paper last December that schools should be judged in part on their “college proficiency” rates—a measure of how many members of a high school class make it from freshman year to sophomore year in college.

Unequal Shares Of Economic Success

This graphic illustrates the distribution of the adult population and of the total income collectively by all adults, according to the specified levels of education. High school dropouts account for 13 percent of the adult population, but less than 6 percent of all dollars earned. By contrast, individuals with graduate and professional degrees constitute only 11 percent of the population, but account for 22 percent of all earnings.


SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2009

Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based group that works toward better preparation for high school students, advocated in a February 2008 white paper that revamped accountability systems include indicators such as the portion of recent graduates who require college remediation, persist in postsecondary education, or earn some form of postsecondary credential, whether a career-ready certificate or an associate or bachelor’s degree.

Even with a high-profile national push to improve the bumpy college-readiness landscape, difficulties complicate the possible solutions. Some scholars, for instance, believe that the college-for-all idea is fundamentally flawed.

“The notion that every student is equipped to get a college degree is a highly dubious one,” says Richard K. Vedder, a professor of economics at Ohio University who served on former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ Commission on the Future of Higher Education in 2005-06.

“This is all about political correctness. It’s ‘the right thing to do’ to aim everyone toward college,” Vedder says. “But there is a lack of realism in the notion that everyone can be a college graduate, or even a student in college, unless we want to dumb down what we mean by college.”

James E. Rosenbaum, a professor of sociology, education, and social policy at Northwestern University, has argued that by “quietly and unofficially” adopting a policy of encouraging all students to attend college, American high schools are doing a poor job of preparing the vast numbers of students who are bound instead for the workplace after high school graduation. With college as the overarching goal, schools focus too much on addressing students’ academic deficiencies, and too little on building work skills prized by employers, he argued in his 2001 book Beyond College for All.

Increasing Options

Still, most educators are increasingly arguing that all students should be ready for some kind of postsecondary study.

“You want students to have options when they leave high school,” says Michael Cohen, the president of Achieve, a Washington group formed by governors and business leaders that promotes higher academic standards. “What having options means is that they can access some kind of postsecondary education,” he says. “That’s not the same thing as saying every student must go to college. But you want them to be prepared for that.”

But those working toward better college readiness don’t agree on how best to gauge it. Complicating the definition of readiness is the question of what students should be ready for. Is the same level of readiness necessary, for instance, for community college and a four-year program at a flagship university? And if not, which levels of readiness should students be expected to meet?

Patrick M. Callan, the president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, based in San Jose, Calif., says the most sensible readiness peg would be to broad-access, four-year public universities, since that is where the majority of students enroll.

Working a rigorous definition of readiness into states’ academic standards can prove difficult. The Southern Regional Education Board, which is working to boost college readiness in seven states, has found some resistance among state lawmakers to the idea that a high school diploma must signify college readiness.

“We are so far away from that in every state that we are scaring people by insisting it needs to be one and the same,” says David S. Spence, the president of the Atlanta-based SREB.

States generally do not demand that their high schools prepare students for college admission. According to the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center, only a few states have passed laws aligning their high school graduation requirements with the admissions requirements of their state university systems. In most high schools, then, students are not college-ready simply because they earned a diploma.

Even if a definition of readiness were clear and universally adopted, and state standards reflected that idea, how best to measure college readiness would remain an open question.

Comprehensive high school exit exams are too often pegged to low achievement levels. More and more, states are phasing those out in favor of end-of-course exams, which experts say offer the chance for a better gauge of course-content mastery. But few, if any, such exams are designed with college faculty input to ensure alignment between postsecondary and precollegiate expectations.

Using completion of a college-preparatory curriculum as a proxy for college readiness is risky, experts say, because it overlooks wide variations in course content.

Researchers from the Consortium on Chicago School Research and the University of Michigan examined Chicago’s 1997 initiative requiring all students to complete a college-prep curriculum. They reported in a December working paper that while dropout rates did not rise, as some observers had feared, requiring the college-prep curriculum had no effect on students’ likelihood of enrolling in college.

Inadequate Tests?

Getting a true gauge of complex college-level skills—such as stating and defending one’s views based on research—could require a move away from the dominant test format of multiple-choice and short-essay questions, says Linda Darling-Hammond, a Stanford University education professor who has studied the assessment systems in other countries.

Nations such as Finland with high student achievement, she says, administer assessments that tilt more toward open-ended essays, science investigations, or research papers, often given as school-based assignments.

“These are the tasks that require kids to express their findings and views, argue, defend their ideas,” Darling-Hammond says. “These are the real tests of what you have to do when you get to college.”

Achieve and the Education Trust, a Washington group that advocates policies to improve schooling for disadvantaged students, echoed a similar theme in a set of papers released jointly in November 2008. They called for performance assessments to measure “the full range” of students’ proficiency at college- and career-ready skills.

“Some of the essential skills that college faculty and employers value in high school graduates are difficult to measure via pencil-and-paper tests,” the groups said in their “Measures That Matter” papers.

Colleges themselves are under increasing pressure to help define and support the readiness agenda. Callan of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education says colleges have only recently started to acknowledge that they must shoulder some responsibility for poor student outcomes by helping K-12 systems write strong college-ready standards, offering more support for entering college students, and improving training of aspiring teachers in its schools of education.

“We’ve been quick to criticize high schools for sending us people who weren’t college-ready,” he says, “but we [in higher education] haven’t done much on the teacher education side or the student-support side, let alone working to develop [readiness] standards.”

The problem is especially severe for low-income students, who face a steeper learning curve in pursuing the road to college, since they come disproportionately from families with little or no college-going background.

Studies by the Consortium on Chicago School Research have found that while such students have high aspirations, even many of those who qualify for college acceptance lack the information and support necessary to clear the hurdles of the application and enrollment process, and never set foot on campus. Still others select colleges that are not good matches for them, and drop out.

A Struggle

Jenny Nagaoka, a member of the consortium team that has led those studies, says high schools must embrace an obligation not only to ensure solid academic preparation for all students, but also to make sure they guide adolescents—especially those from low-income families—through the daunting process of researching college choices, completing applications, and securing financial aid to attend.

“This is a new role for high schools to be taking on,” Nagaoka said during a forum in May at the Washington-based Brookings Institution about what high schools must do to help disadvantaged students succeed in college. “The whole idea that everybody is going to go to college and needs to be prepared for college is something that a lot of high schools are struggling to figure out.”

As far away as the nation may be from having its arms around the college-readiness issue, policymakers and educators are working toward solutions.

California’s 5-year-old voluntary Early Assessment Program takes a snapshot of 11th graders’ college readiness, using tests designed collaboratively with the state department of education and the California State University system. The results show whether students are ready for entry-level work on Cal State campuses, and enables them to skip the system’s placement tests if they are. The test’s timing affords them a year to come up to snuff if they’re not ready.

A recent study of the program showed that at one Cal State campus, in Sacramento, remediation rates had declined by 4 to 6 percentage points since 2004.

Texas Offers Model

Experts point to Texas as an example of a state on the leading edge of college-readiness work because of its comprehensive approach.

The Texas legislature passed a bill in 2007 requiring its precollegiate and higher education systems to collaborate in crafting standards specifying what students must know in English, mathematics, science, and social studies in order to succeed in entry-level courses in the state’s colleges and universities.

In a process facilitated by David T. Conley’s group at the University of Oregon, secondary and postsecondary staff members forged a set of draft standards. After public comment, they were adopted in 2008 by the boards that govern Texas’ K-12 and public higher education systems.

An extensive alignment analysis was performed, involving more than 800 instructors at public and private colleges and universities, to ensure that the standards accurately reflected expectations for higher education.

“Reference courses” are being designed as examples of what entry-level college work in Texas looks like, to help high school teachers better prepare their students. Secondary and postsecondary teams will also create high school “senior assignments,” scoring guides, and instructional materials based on those reference courses that will be piloted in Texas high schools.

Even as the policy work of building college readiness slowly takes shape, individual schools struggle to find their own formulas for conquering low expectations and college-going rates.

At New York City’s Martin Luther King Jr. High School for Law, Advocacy, and Community Justice, that work has been a heavy lift. It is one of the small schools established in 2002 in a comprehensive high school that served a high-poverty, predominantly minority enrollment. Only a third of the students at that former Midtown Manhattan school graduated.

The small school took on a new principal—and a new approach—in 2004. An intensive focus on literacy and student support, and deliberate work to build a college-going culture, have pushed the graduation rate up to 60 percent. That’s not where Principal Miriam Nightengale wants it to be, but it’s headed in the right direction. And every student who graduated in 2008 was accepted into a two- or four-year college.

“This is doable,” Nightengale says. “Not only is it doable, it’s the whole purpose of what we do.”

Library Director Kathryn Dorko and Library Intern Jessica Cain contributed to this story.


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