College & Workforce Readiness

A More Honest Way of Reporting College Readiness?

By Catherine Gewertz — September 29, 2016 3 min read
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Hey, states: How do you report college readiness to the public? And is that the most honest and complete way of reporting it?

That’s the question posed in a new brief by Achieve, an organization that pushes for strong academic standards and transparent accountability. Just as states are developing their accountability plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act, Achieve argues that states should report on college readiness the same way they are required to report on their graduation rates: by tracking each incoming class of 9th graders and following it through graduation.

That would require a pretty radical change in the way high school data has been reported.

The way states calculate college-readiness data can make a huge difference in how they look to the public. Take as an example the indicator that Achieve focuses on in this report: the percentage of students who score 3 or higher on Advanced Placement tests.

The chart below, from the Achieve report, shows you how five different approaches to the calculation can produce five very different results. In the scenario below, each state has 20 students who earned 3 or higher on an AP exam.

State E, at the bottom, comes out looking really good because it used as its denominator a small pool of students: only the percentage of 12th graders who took an AP exam. That allows the state to claim a 50 percent college-readiness rate. State C doesn’t look as good. It chose to put a bigger group of students in its denominator: the percentage of all 2015 graduates—not just those who took an AP exam—who earned a 3 or higher.

Now take a look at State A: It looks the worst, but Achieve would argue that the way it reports college readiness is the most honest and complete. State A took a look at the entire 9th grade cohort—every student who entered high school in a given school year—and asked what percentage of that group got a 3 or higher on an AP test.

Of that very large group, of course, a state must report a much smaller percentage of students as college ready. But Achieve argues that states, districts, and schools don’t have an accurate picture of the work that’s needed unless they look at college readiness as a picture that involves every student.

For some indicators, using high school graduates—rather than the entire 9th grade cohort—as the denominator could work O.K., Achieve argues. Those would include things like the percentage of graduates who enrolled in college, or required remediation. But for the most honest, realistic picture, even those indicators should be reported, additionally, as a percentage of the entire 9th grade class, the group argues.

For most other indicators, the entire entering 9th grade class should be used as the baseline group, Achieve argues. Here’s what the organization thinks should happen:


  • The percentage of students scoring college ready on state exams. Instead of reporting that figure as a percentage of students who took the exam, states should report it as the percentage of the incoming 9th grade class who eventually scored college ready, because it “provides the most accurate picture of how well schools are doing in preparing all students for success after high school,” the brief says. No state currently reports test performance this way.
  • The percentage of students completing a college-ready course of study. Ditto: States should report the percentage of each 9th grade class that completes a college-ready course of study by graduation. New York and Virginia are the only two states that do this, Achieve says.
  • The percentage of students who are on track to graduate, according to their credit accumulation. Reporting this as a percentage of each 9th grade class, and disaggregating the numbers by subgroup, could allow for identification and support of students who are falling behind.
  • Earning college credit while in high school. States should skip past “participation” in programs like AP, dual-enrollment, and International Baccalaureate as they choose indicators for college credit accrual, Achieve says. Instead, they should use the higher bar, course completion or exam passage, as their indicator and break the data down by subgroup, Achieve argues.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.


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