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States Urged to Redouble Attention to High School Improvement Push

College, career readiness still a concern, say governors, state education leaders
By Catherine Gewertz — January 13, 2009 4 min read

Includes updates and/or revisions.

Despite tougher coursework requirements and other improvements, states need to do much more to make sure that U.S. high school students are poised for success, including better defining what constitutes readiness for career and college, according to a national report.

“Certifying that a high school graduate is college- and career-ready can be a confusing process,” says “Accelerating the Agenda,” a call to action released jointly by the National Governors Association, National Conference of State Legislatures, Council of Chief State School Officers, and the National Association of State Boards of Education on Jan. 13.

The study reports on what states have done since 2005, when the NGA and Achieve Inc., a group that advocates higher standards and better accountability, released their “action agenda” for improving high schools. (“High Schools in Limelight for Summit,” Feb. 23, 2005.)

Representatives of the four organizations detailed a sweeping agenda for high school reform at a news conference here, and urged policymakers to make college and career readiness the “central mission” of their accountability systems. But they acknowledged the thorny question of how to define and measure readiness.

“There are tremendous disparities in terms of expectations,” said Gene Wilhoit, CCSSO’s executive director. “We are getting a lot more specific about success criteria ... there is a lot of work to be done here. But we’ve taken this on.”

The report says, for instance, that 15 states define college readiness by using test scores, curricula, competencies, or content standards. Twenty-six define career readiness by using technical content standards, sets of skills, academic and technical coursework, or assessment performance. A dozen states have both career- and college-readiness definitions; half consider the two sets “substantially” different, and half do not, it said.

Aligning Standards

Substantial progress has been made in “restoring the value” of the high school diploma by raising standards and graduation requirements, beefing up course rigor, revamping career and technical education, and expanding access to college-level work, the report said.

Twenty-two states have aligned their English and mathematics standards to “more accurately reflect real-world expectations of colleges and employers”—as outlined by Achieve, Inc.—and 23 more are working to do so, it said.

Twenty states and the District of Columbia now require that in order to get a diploma, all students must take a curriculum that Achieve defines as constituting college and career readiness, something only two states did in 2004, the report said.

The groups urged states to shorten their list of high-school-level academic standards and make them “clearer in focus and higher in rigor,” and to require students to take a common set of college- and career-ready courses in order to graduate.

Human Capital Needs

According to the report, an area of weakness in building better high schools is improving teacher and principal quality.

“No state has yet undertaken a comprehensive effort to upgrade the effectiveness of their high school teacher and principal workforce,” it said.

To tailor headhunting or training, a state must know what sort of personnel it needs, the report said, and that requires longitudinal data systems that paint a portrait of the education workforce. Georgia, for instance, has a division that reports annually on the production and supply of—and demand for—educators by grade level, subject field, and geographic area.

An evaluation system that isolates individual teachers’ effects on student performance over time, it said, is “key” to building a corps of effective teachers.

The report specifically mentioned special compensation for teachers who improve student performance, or who take jobs in high-needs schools or subject-shortage areas. Eleven states, it said, now reward teachers for improving student performance, and 28 offer additional pay to those who work in hard-to-staff schools or shortage subject areas.

Attention to Principals

Building a strong cadre of principals requires freeing them from some duties so they have time to be instructional leaders, and allowing them more authority to decide who works in their buildings, the report said.

In New York City, Massachusetts, and Nevada, for instance, principals can agree to meet certain school performance goals in exchange for more autonomy, the report said. A 2006 California law allows principals in low-performing schools to reject a teacher’s request to transfer into the school if such a move would undermine the school’s improvement plans, it said.

“A few states” are creating “robust” accountability policies, the study said. Nine now require students to take tests that are “sufficiently rigorous” to measure college- and career-readiness, and 23 more states are working to do likewise.

Dane Linn, the director of NGA’s education division, said that those states do not share a common definition of what constitutes sufficient rigor.

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A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as States Urged to Redouble Attention to High School Improvement

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