College & Workforce Readiness

As ‘Accelerated Learning’ Booms, High School-College Divide Blurs

By Lynn Olson — June 20, 2006 4 min read
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One indication that the lines between high schools and colleges are blurring is the growth in programs that permit students to earn college credit while still in high school.

More than 250 educators and policymakers representing both the K-12 and higher education communities gathered here June 8-9 to discuss such “accelerated-learning options,” from Advanced Placement programs to early-college high schools.

“This is a policy area of great potential and certainly great interest,” said David A. Longanecker, the executive director of the Boulder, Colo.-based Western Interstate Commission for Higher Education, which co-hosted the event with the Boston-based Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit policy and research group.

According to a report on accelerated-learning options that the commission plans to release later this month, 32 states now have policies permitting students to earn college credit while still in high school.

Texas House Bill 1, passed this year, for example, requires that by fall 2008, all Texas districts enable students to earn the equivalent of 12 hours of college credit during high school.

And in Arkansas, school districts must provide high school students with the chance to enroll in at least one Advanced Placement course in the four core areas of English, math, science, and social studies by fall 2009.

But questions remain about such programs, including how best to finance them, how to maintain their quality and rigor, what types of outcomes are realistic, and whether they should be targeted at academically advanced students or at those who need extra support to succeed in college, conference participants noted.

Even the phrase “accelerated learning” stirred debate, with some questioning whether the goal is to shorten the amount of time it takes students to earn a college degree or, rather, to provide enrichment that would better prepare more students for college.

“The outcome may be acceleration for some people,” said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, the president of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, “but the goal should be strengthening education for all of our children.”

Diverse Options

Conferees considered options including AP, the International Baccalaureate diploma program, tech-prep programs, early-college high schools, and dual-enrollment or concurrent-enrollment courses, arrangements that allow high school students to take college classes either at postsecondary institutions or in their home schools.

Typically smaller than standard comprehensive high schools, early-college high schools enable students to graduate with both a high school diploma and an associate’s degree, or up to two years of college credit toward a bachelor’s degree.

A particular focus of the gathering was the promise that such programs hold for increasing the participation and success rates of students who traditionally pursue postsecondary education at disproportionately low rates, such as low-income and minority students.

“For many struggling students, the seriousness of college courses and the necessary support to get through them turns things around,” said Marlene B. Seltzer, the president of Jobs for the Future.

Good Data Scarce

Betsy Brand, the director of the Washington-based American Youth Policy Forum, a nonprofit group that educates policymakers and practitioners on youth and education issues, said that despite its promise, few good data exist on the outcomes of accelerated-learning programs.

She based her assessment on a forthcoming review she has conducted of 22 such programs, which either had third-party evaluations or had made a serious effort to collect data about their students’ performance.

“There is some good news there,” said Ms. Brand, who was an assistant secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush, “but maybe not as much as we would like.”

Few programs, for example, collected longitudinal data that could track the success rates of students into college, she said. And most focused on traditional college-prep students, rather than on those from more disadvantaged groups.

Quality a Concern

One of the biggest questions posed at the meeting was how to ensure that the college learning opportunities offered to high school students actually reflect college-level rigor.

“There is a difference between a college-level class and a college-like class,” cautioned Ms. Brand.

Of particular concern was the rigor of college courses taught in high schools by high school teachers.

One endeavor to document the quality of such courses is the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, established in 1999, which offers accreditation to programs that meet its standards.

Despite the questions raised, those here noted, accelerated-learning opportunities provide a concrete way to help straddle the traditional boundaries between K-12 and postsecondary institutions to the potential benefit of students and educators.

“Accelerated-learning options seem to us to be one of those key policies, one of those key practices, that have the potential to really break through a lot of our assumptions about the way things have to be,” said Dewayne Matthews, a senior research director with the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation for Education, which supported the two-day event along with the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 21, 2006 edition of Education Week as As ‘Accelerated Learning’ Booms, High School-College Divide Blurs

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