College & Workforce Readiness

Data Driving College Preparation

By Caralee J. Adams — November 15, 2011 | Corrected: February 21, 2019 9 min read
Declan Mitchell contemplates his answers to a history test. The Woodford High School junior took advantage of the school's open-door AP-class policy, a shift designed to move students' coursework to a higher level. Kentucky is seeing dramatic benefits of sharing data to get students college-ready.
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story included inaccurate benchmark goals for Kentucky.

Once Kentucky educators started sharing data about how high school students were doing after graduation, things started to change.

University professors and high school teachers began comparing notes about their expectations in class. Rigor was ramped up. Transition courses were developed in high schools to help lagging students avoid remediation in college. Advanced Placement restrictions were lifted to expose more students to college-level courses.

As communication lines opened, other changes followed. The percentage of college-going students in Kentucky went up, and the need for remediation in college went down.

Kentucky is at the forefront of collecting and sharing P-20 data, information that spans preschool through graduate study. Since the 1990s, it had been tracking the performance of students over time. But not everyone knew it.

Five years ago, that changed. With the input of educators at all levels, the system was revised to be more user-friendly. The resulting college- and career-readiness feedback reports are a tool for superintendents, principals, guidance counselors, school board members, college administrators, and parents to make decisions about education.

The state’s outreach efforts set it apart. “We don’t just mail them out,” Charles McGrew, the executive director of Kentucky’s P-20 Data Collaborative, said of the reports. He goes on the road to do presentations to nearly any group that will give him an audience.

“Every state is either building or trying to build a P-20 system so they can track kids across these educational systems,” Mr. McGrew said. “In the end, they really aren’t worth a lot if they don’t get used. It’s critical for states to spend some time thinking about what information needs to get out and who needs to get it.”

The state was honest in recognizing that no one was looking at the reams of paper it produced, and that it needed to design something that made sense, said Aimee Guidera, the executive director of the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit group in Washington that advocates enhanced data-sharing to improve education. “Kentucky took on this initiative themselves to move from getting data out as a compliance idea,” she said, “to more of a focus on how do we get information to people in the spirit of transparency and continuous improvement.”

Substantial progress has been made across the country in building longitudinal-data systems to track student performance and increase efficiency. In 2005, 12 states were reporting the capacity to link K-12 and higher education systems, and by 2010, the number had leaped to 44, according to the DQC and the U.S. Department of Education.

Approaches vary by region. In Colorado, the nonprofit Denver Scholarship Foundation is tracking the performance of its college scholars and giving feedback to high school principals and college presidents. California has a voluntary system of collecting, analyzing, and sharing data among elementary, middle, and high schools and higher education. Florida’s effort to link data from K-12, higher education, and the workforce is spearheaded by the state and dates back 25 years.

The DQC is pushing for states to take the lead, because it believes they have the means, impartiality, and incentive to get information in the hands of educators at all levels.

“This is not a technical conversation; it’s policy leadership,” Ms. Guidera said. “It’s not about fancy data systems.” For many states, she said, the barrier is trust.

Benchmarks Set

Kentucky’s top K-12, postsecondary, and teacher-training leaders collaborated on data-sharing. The state legislature in 2009 mandated that the sectors work together to improve education. It set benchmarks to halve the percentage of students who enter college with remedial needs so that 81 percent of students are prepared for college-credit-bearing coursework by 2014. The goal is to increase the college-graduation rate for first-time underprepared students from 33 percent in 2009 to 48 percent by 2014.

“The political will has translated into a positive focus on career and college readiness,” said Terry Holliday, the commissioner of education. “It’s not about turf, it’s about kids.”

Establishing the Council on Postsecondary Education, which oversees changes and improvements in the state’s postsecondary system, made it easier to coordinate dialogue between K-12 and all the state colleges, Mr. Holliday said.

State leaders work closely together, said Robert King, the president of the council. “We all understand that our individual success is tightly tied to the success of the others.”

“You can’t expect people to fix something if they don’t know it’s broken,” said Mr. McGrew of the P-20 Data Collaborative. Educators were hungry for the data, and the benefits of having the information overshadowed fears of how it would make them look, he said. “It’s by no sense a ‘gotcha.’ The overall response we get is very positive,” he said.

Sam Evans, the dean of the college of education at Western Kentucky University, in Bowling Green, was part of the group that sketched out how the new P-20 collaboration would work. “Everybody had their data sets, and they weren’t speaking to one another,” he said. The focus of the discussion, he said, was practical: “What do we need to know?”

The driver for everyone to work together was economic development. There was agreement that the only way it could be achieved was with more college degrees and well-prepared high school graduates, said Mr. Evans.

Educators from all sectors labored for weeks over language and metrics, Mr. McGrew said. Lawyers hammered out privacy issues and agreed not to release individual student-achievement data, which had been a stumbling block to data-sharing elsewhere.

Information to Action

As in many other states, educators in Kentucky had an assumption that if students were doing well and getting good grades in high school, they must be ready for college. But the standards are not the same, said Mr. McGrew.

As data were funneled to the high schools, the misalignment was clear. The state started to have all students take the ACT college-entrance exam in their junior year in 2007-08, a policy that helped pinpoint areas where they didn’t meet the benchmarks.

Kyle Fannin thought he was doing a good job as a teacher of U.S. history and AP American government at Woodford County High School in Versailles, Ky. “By all outward appearances, we were a great school,” said Mr. Fannin, as students scored well on tests and AP exams. But the data told a different story.

Some Woodford students who had received state scholarships based on merit had lost their funding because they weren’t maintaining a 3.0 GPA in college. Other data showed more of the students taking remedial math and English in college than the school had expected. When Mr. Fannin would talk to returning students, they would tell him that finals “killed” them. In high school, final exams counted for only 10 percent of their grades.

Armed with that information, the school made changes. More reading was assigned, including primary sources, and longer periods of sustained reading were included in classes. Finals counted for a bigger part of their grades.

And more AP classes became “open door” to all students, rather than just those with high grades. When students want to drop an AP class because they are getting a B or C and go to a general class to make an A, Mr. Fannin says the teachers are holding their ground and saying: “No way.”

Mr. Fannin’s mind-set is long-term. “I care far more about what my students do after they leave me than how they do when they are here,” he said.

Elsewhere in the state, Lu Young, Jessamine County’s schools superintendent, said high school feedback reports are conversation starters to get precollegiate and postsecondary educators around the same table.

“It gets teachers working to see what seamless means,” Ms. Young said. Once teachers knew what professors were expecting, they were ready to make changes, she said. Now, the district has more ACT preparation, increased math and foreign-language requirements, and new policies around intervention support for seniors.

In turn, the district’s teachers have relayed to their college counterparts the instructional tips for meeting the needs of diverse students that they will be more likely to encounter with the push for college for all.

With so many students coming to Eastern Kentucky University with developmental needs in math, Bob Thomas, a professor in the math and statistics department, came up with a high school program to get students who fell below the ACT math benchmark college-ready before they graduated.

“Our philosophy was it had to be done school by school, teacher by teacher,” Mr. Thomas said.

He and his colleagues consulted with high school teachers about lesson plans and gained respect because many on the university team were former K-12 teachers. “We know their world,” said Mr. Thomas, adding it was crucial that EKU required faculty members on the project to have teaching experience.

EKU has a higher percentage of college-ready students this fall and those with developmental-math needs decreased to 31 percent, which could be attributed to the high school math-transition courses, officials say.

Last year, the English department followed the math department’s lead and established professional learning communities with area high school teachers to discuss improving the writing and reading skills of students who didn’t meet the ACT benchmarks. The department devised training on aligning curriculum with expectations on campus.

“It’s important to recognize the expertise of the high school teacher and not prescribe a particular look, but allow them to create what works best in their setting,” said Kim Creech, an assistant professor of English at EKU.

The mix of remedies is working. The latest feedback report, from the 2008 high school graduates, showed that 56.8 percent had enrolled in postsecondary education in-state, compared with 50.9 percent in 2004. Among those enrolled, 38 percent needed help in at least one subject in college, down from 45 percent. New data are due out in a few weeks.

Period of Adjustment

For teacher education programs, the data prompted some adjustments. For instance, Western Kentucky University is looking to add a course on helping students with literacy and it updated its technology so it was in line with what students had used in local schools, Mr. Evans said.

Kentucky is continually working to improve its high school feedback reports, Mr. McGrew said. Rather than coming out every other year, the reports are now annual as of this fall and will provide feedback within a year for a graduating class, rather than two years. For the first time, they also include a breakdown of college-going rates and performance by race and income.

“It’s not cheap and it’s not easy, but the benefit is so dramatic,” Mr. McGrew said of the data-sharing. “You can’t improve preparation for college if you don’t measure how kids are doing across the pipeline.”

Special coverage on the alignment between K-12 schools and postsecondary education is supported in part by a grant from the Lumina Foundation for Education, at
A version of this article appeared in the November 16, 2011 edition of Education Week as Data-Sharing in Kentucky Drives College Preparation


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