College & Workforce Readiness

College ‘E-Advisers’ Show Promise for K-12 Schools

By Sarah D. Sparks — February 19, 2013 6 min read
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Data analyses now being used in Tennessee colleges may highlight a new way for high schools to meet increasing college- and career-readiness requirements for their students at a time when school guidance staffs are shrinking.

More than a dozen colleges across the state have started to use the mountain of data they have on incoming students to recommend courses and even predict how well students will perform.

Now used only at the college level, the system, Degree Compass, highlights the potential of the trove of K-12 student data collected in every state to be used not just for school accountability, but also for giving individual students and staff members more understanding of students’ academic careers.

The system builds on a growing trend in higher education to personalize students’ schedules to make it easier to graduate.

Arizona State University, for instance, uses an “e-adviser” that updates students on what classes are needed for different degree programs. The “Service-Oriented Higher Education Recommendation Personalization Assistant,” or SHERPA, used by more than 40,000 community college students at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo, Calif., recommends courses based on students’ degree programs and prior class preferences.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, lauded the use of data to help students plan academically in his State of the State speech last month.

“It’s inspired by companies like Netflix, Amazon, and Pandora that tailor their recommendations to what their customers are looking for,” the governor said. “That’s exactly what we should be doing: helping our students find the subjects and skills that are the avenues for success.”

Desire2Learn, a Canadian education technology company in Kitchner, Ontario, purchased the rights to the Tennessee program this year, and is now testing it on five additional college campuses. If successful, the company plans to make the system more widely available later this spring.

“This has as much, if not more, potential in K-12, though students don’t have as many [course] options,” said Jeff McDowell, the vice president of market development and new strategies for Desire2Learn.

“What this tool does is figure out where students’ core competencies are,” he said. “In K-12, it will probably be used by the teachers and guidance counselors directly to help the students figure out what they’re good at.”

Dave J. Forrester, a school counselor at Olympia High School in Washington state and the technology chairman of the state association of school counselors, said it’s clear in his state which courses students need in order to be ready for college or a technical field after graduation. But there has been no system that can provide student data fast enough for counselors to use in advising sessions, he said, much less to predict the best course tracks for students’ success.

“States are spending millions of dollars on these longitudinal-data systems, and all we get at the end of the day is post-mortem looks [at student courses],” Mr. Forrester said. “The only way counselors can look forward is by doing our own analyses” every semester for every student, he said. While many states, including Louisiana and Washington, use their school administrative-data and state longitudinal student-data systems to create systems to identify students in danger of not graduating from high school on time, those early-warning systems so far have not used data to help students choose classes.

That may be a mistake, because better personalization could keep students more engaged in class, according to Tristan Denley, the provost and vice president for academic affairs at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., who developed the Degree Compass program.

“When students are taking classes that suit them better, they tend to do better,” Mr. Denley said.

At the Austin Peay campus, which has been using the system since 2010, the proportion of students earning a C or better in their courses has jumped four standard deviations.

Navigating Choices

In everything from movies to pizza parlors, students are used to having a myriad of choices, easily categorized and personalized to their tastes. Yet in high school and college, students often confront a bewildering array of core subjects and electives, without much help to select among them.

“When students first walk in, they are taking core classes, but there’s a lot of choice there, and those are really difficult choices to navigate,” said Mr. Denley.

Academic counselors, in college and particularly in high school, have had less time to help students navigate the education system. According to the most recent estimates from the National Center for Education Statistics, the number of counseling positions nationwide dropped by 2,000 from 2008-09 to 2010-11, pushing the student-to-counselor ratio to 457-to-1.

In practice, that means many counselors are able to give students’ schedules little more than a once-over.

As a result, research shows students often pass over a calculus class for, say, family and consumer science, unknowingly building barriers to later college and careers, particularly in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and math.

By contrast, the Degree Compass system in Tennessee, developed with a $1 million grant from the Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Washington-based nonprofit Complete College America, creates a profile for each student. (The Gates Foundation also provides grant support for Education Week‘s coverage of business and innovation.)

The profile, updated every time he or she takes a class, uses the student’s chosen major, previous classes, and the grades earned in each; high school GPA; entrance-exam scores; and dual credits. It uses that profile to rate every possible course the student could take in the next semester, giving up to five stars based on how well a course fulfills a student’s degree requirements.

‘Five-Star Class’

The system has been shown to predict, with about 92 percent accuracy, whether the student will pass a given class, based on previous grades in similar classes.

“A five-star class doesn’t mean you will get an A; it means it is a core class to work toward your degree,” Mr. Denley said. “Where other metrics are all about what you would like the best, this is all about trying to steer you to the classes in which you would be most successful.”

Mr. Denley cautioned that students still need to connect with guidance counselors in person to get advice on different instructors’ teaching styles or identify interesting one-shot classes.

But he said that understanding a students’ data can help counselors identify the most efficient path to graduation.

Research from Complete College America suggests college students take 20 percent more courses than they need to earn a degree, increasing the likelihood they will run out of time or money.

Technology in primary and secondary school is generally much more limited than in higher education, Mr. Forrester noted; he said he doubted most schools would have the data infrastructure to support the analytic tools required for a system like Degree Compass.

“There’s been a big lag between the commercial framework and the K-12 framework,” he said.

Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation, at www.luminafoundation.org.
A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 2013 edition of Education Week as K-12 Potential Seen for College ‘E-Advisers’

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