Policymakers from across the ideological spectrum affirm the benefits of a college education. Few campaign speeches are completed without a pledge to help more people secure them. Despite such enthusiasm, the backdrop for policy debates continues to be formed by a host of disconcerting statistics about the college readiness and college-completion rates of American students.
The National Center for Education Statistics reports that 42 percent of entering students at two-year postsecondary institutions enroll in remedial courses, for example. And the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development ranks the United States just 12th among developed nations in the percentage of 25- to 34-year-olds with college degrees.
Researchers and policymakers express widespread agreement that too many American high school students lack the skills and knowledge needed to succeed in college—yet a consensus on how to define college readiness remains elusive. As a result, students and teachers may receive conflicting signals about the path to college success.
Over the past decade, researchers and state policymakers have sought to identify the skills and knowledge students need for college. The analysis conducted for Diplomas Count 2009 outlines researchers’ major approaches to defining college readiness. It also draws on data from the EPE Research Center’s annual state policy survey to describe how states are putting the concept into practice.
In its survey, the research center asked each state to document any definition of college readiness it had developed as of the 2008-09 school year. Twenty states spell out what college-ready students should know and be able to do. Analyses revealed that those expectations are communicated using one or more of the following strategies: courses, skills, standards, and tests.
Some national organizations—most prominently Achieve, a Washington-based group formed by governors and business leaders that advocates greater academic rigor in high schools—define college readiness, at least in part, by identifying the courses and number of course credits high school students should complete before graduating. Advocates of course-based definitions generally rely on a frequently cited body of research indicating that high school students who take high-level courses are more likely to ultimately earn a bachelor’s degree.
One such research effort is Clifford Adelman’s “Answers in the Toolbox: Academic Intensity, Attendance Patterns, and Bachelor’s Degree Attainment,” an influential 1999 U.S. Department of Education analysis of high school transcript data. That study found that the intensity of a student’s coursetaking is strongly related to eventual attainment of a bachelor’s degree, particularly for African-American and Latino students.
Even a cursory review of state education agency Web sites suggests that studies showing a connection between high school curriculum and college success have captured the attention of policymakers. Course-based definitions of college readiness, informed by that research, are one strategy states have used in an attempt to improve academic preparation for college.
Twenty states spell out skills and knowledge students need to be college-ready. In those states, readiness expectations are communicated using one or more of the following strategies: courses, skills, standards, and tests. Fourteen states include academic-content standards in their definitions of college readiness, and 13 recommend or require college-preparatory courses. Fewer states use definitions that incorporate specific test scores or rely on narrative descriptions of skills needed for college success. Thirteen of the 20 states use multiple strategies to define readiness.
SOURCE: EPE Research Center, 2009
According to EPE Research Center survey results, 13 states define college readiness by identifying recommended or required college-preparatory courses. For example, Indiana and Oklahoma have enacted legislation that will soon require all students to take a college-prep curriculum to earn a standard high school diploma.
In Indiana, students graduating in the class of 2011 will have to complete a set of courses—known as Core 40—in order to graduate, unless parents give formal consent for their child to opt out of those requirements. The Core 40 courses will also be required for admission to the state’s public universities.
Some observers caution that a course-based approach to college readiness does not guarantee that students will be better prepared. Researchers from the San Jose, Calif.-based National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, among others, point out that course titles are only loose proxies for the skills and knowledge students need to master to perform well in credit-bearing college courses. Those researchers call for colleges to work more closely with high schools in efforts to ensure that coursework is aligned with postsecondary expectations.
Examining Skills and Standards
The University of Oregon’s David T. Conley agrees that relying on course titles can be problematic and emphasizes that few indicators of actual course quality are available. He suggests that a more inclusive definition of college readiness is needed, along with additional tools to evaluate readiness on a more extensive set of factors than course titles alone.
Conley, the director of the Center for Educational Policy Research, divides the skills and knowledge needed for college readiness into four categories: key cognitive strategies, specific content knowledge and academic skills, attitudes and behaviors, and contextual knowledge of college culture. His approach draws on research showing that college instructors in introductory courses consider such key cognitive strategies as analytic and problem-solving skills to be as consequential for college readiness as specific content knowledge.
To describe essential skills and knowledge, Conley directed a project for the Association of American Universities to develop college-readiness standards. Some states have used college-readiness standards devised by Conley, as well as benchmarks from similar efforts such as ACT Inc.’s College Readiness Standards and Achieve’s American Diploma Project, to evaluate the alignment of their academic standards with postsecondary expectations.
Communicating college-readiness expectations through academic-content standards is the most common approach reported to the EPE Research Center by respondents. That approach is used by 14 of the 20 states with college-readiness definitions. Employing a closely related strategy, seven states provide narrative descriptions of the competencies needed for collegiate success.
Texas offers a notable example of a strategy for setting college-readiness standards. The state legislature directed the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board and its K-12 counterpart, the Texas Education Agency, to collaborate in formulating college-readiness standards. In January 2008, the higher education board adopted the Texas College and Career Readiness Standards, which were produced by teams of experts identified by both sectors. Those college-readiness standards in English, mathematics, social studies, and science are being incorporated into the K-12 system’s academic expectations.
Similar cross-sector cooperation in Washington state, through the Transition Math Project, resulted in college-readiness standards for mathematics released in 2006.
One common criticism of skills- or standards-oriented approaches is that they do not adequately measure mastery of academic skills that cut across disciplines or broad categories of noncognitive capacities. The difficulties inherent in objectively measuring those “soft skills,” and how students develop those capacities over time, pose formidable obstacles, as does the fact that few states have statewide assessments of content knowledge capable of gauging college readiness.
Using Tests to Set a Numerical Target
Scores on the major national college-admissions tests, the ACT and the SAT, are more likely to be used as indicators of college preparation than are results on state academic assessments. ACT Inc. has devised a college-readiness system with multiple components designed to assist states in preparing students for college and work. As one part of that system, ACT established target scores on its English, mathematics, reading, and science tests, to offer a performance-based method of identifying college-ready students.
According to ACT research, students meeting the test-score benchmarks have a better chance of earning a grade of B or above in introductory college courses and ultimately finishing their degrees.
Eight states have established test-score benchmarks—most commonly using one of the national college-entrance tests—as an element of their college-readiness definitions.
For instance, Kentucky’s statewide college-placement policy requires postsecondary institutions to use the ACT to determine students’ readiness in English, mathematics, and reading. Students reaching benchmark scores on a test in one of those subjects will not be placed in remedial courses in that content area. All high school juniors in the state are required to take the ACT.
Advocates of using test scores to define college readiness see those numerical results as a way to empirically quantify students’ level of preparation for higher education. Others, however, see the tests as providing only a snapshot of student performance rather than a measure of long-term preparation for college.
Regardless of how debates over college preparation unfold, the clock is ticking on President Barack Obama’s goal for the nation to lead the world in college attainment by the year 2020.