College & Workforce Readiness

K-12 and College Expectations Often Fail to Mesh

By Lynn Olson — May 09, 2001 22 min read
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In hotel conference rooms here last month, a group of university faculty members met to pore over samples of freshman work, trying to identify the knowledge and skills students need to succeed in the first year of college.

Then they turned to their states’ academic standards, which spell out the knowledge and skills expected of graduating high school seniors, to see if they matched up.

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Hundreds of miles away, in Illinois, high school juniors got out their No. 2 pencils last month and took a college-admissions exam, the ACT, as part of a new state testing program.

And in Massachusetts, the chancellor of higher education has broached the idea of using scores on that state’s test as one tool to determine whether students should be admitted to its public colleges and universities.

In the past decade, nearly every state has set new expectations for what high school students should know and be able to do when they graduate; in many cases, states have linked those standards to tests students must pass to earn a diploma. But few states have adopted their standards and tests with college success in mind, despite the fact that about three-quarters of high school graduates enroll in some form of postsecondary education within two years of getting their diplomas.

Now, with the pressure to do well on high school graduation tests mounting—and with college remedial and dropout rates high—efforts are under way to connect the standards students must meet to finish high school and the skills they need to enter and succeed in higher education.

“We want to make sure that there’s a consistency between what the students are being required to do in order to graduate from high school, and what we are requiring for admissions,” said Judith I. Gill, Massachusetts’ higher education chancellor.

As matters stand, such consistency is often sorely lacking, experts say.

“When you look at the content and rigor of what’s expected to graduate from high school, and you compare that with what you have to do, not just to gain entry to college but to enroll in credit-bearing coursework, the gap just knocks you in the face,” said Kati Haycock, the executive director of the Washington-based Education Trust, which has worked extensively on what are often called K-16 issues. “Until we’re willing to say that the goal for high school really is to prepare kids for success in postsecondary education, we’re not likely to close that.”

Efforts to bridge the divide have cropped up across the country. Among them is the Standards for Success project, which sponsored last month’s meeting here in Piscataway between faculty members from New York University, Pennsylvania State University, and New Brunswick, N.J.-based Rutgers University, to examine the connection between their expectations for college freshmen with high school graduation standards and tests.

“These tests and these standards are going to start to shape the high school curriculum,” said David T. Conley, the director of Standards for Success. “Particularly in places where students are under pressure to do well on these tests, it ought to be possible for universities to use this information.”

Coming Together

In a growing number of states, policymakers are thinking along similar lines. For example:

  • In New York state, students who earn above a certain score on the state regents’ exams in English and math—which are now required to earn a diploma—automatically place out of remedial courses at the City University of New York system. Studies have found that since CUNY adopted the policy in 1999, more than 90 percent of such students have earned a C or better in their entry-level college classes. “We see no reason to test students with different instruments to determine the same thing,” said Louise Mirrer, the executive vice chancellor of CUNY.

  • For the first time this year, students in Oregon can apply to the state’s public colleges and universities using the Proficiency-Based Admissions Standards System, or PASS, which was adopted by the state board of higher education in 1994. The system, devised in collaboration with the state’s high schools, is based on a set of aligned state standards from grade 3 through college admissions.

Under the program, students can show their readiness for college through a series of statewide tests, standardized national examinations, and classroom-based assignments completed as part of the regular high school curriculum. As many as 1,000 applicants are expected to use PASS for admissions purposes this year. Using the system is optional through fall 2004, but after that, it will become Oregon’s preferred method of admissions, and students will have to meet PASS standards to be accepted at a state college. Students who use the process don’t have to submit SAT or ACT scores.

“It’s much more complicated than looking at the traditional measures that we use: grade point averages, seat time, and SAT scores,” said David A. McDonald, the director of enrollment services for the state’s 70,000-student higher education system, “but it’s much more revealing, much more comprehensive, and will result in a much more informed admissions decision.”

  • Georgia is pilot-testing a standards-based admissions system modeled after that in Oregon, which some students may use as early as this coming fall to apply to certain public colleges and universities. The portfolio- based system is expected to incorporate samples of students’ classroom work as well as scores on new end-of-course exams that are being phased in for a high school diploma.
  • In Maryland, educators from K-12 and higher education have been working together to craft standards for high school end-of-course tests that can also be used for college admissions and placement.

“We are on record as saying, ‘By golly, if these exams work, we fully intend to make them a crucial factor in our admissions process,’” said Donald N. Langenberg, the chancellor of the University System of Maryland. “My own personal dream is that, if it works out well, it could very well provide a better tool for judging readiness for college than the SAT exams or even high school grade point averages.”

  • In Texas, a bill before the legislature would require all students to take the state’s “recommended” high school curriculum to graduate, instead of the less rigorous “minimum” curriculum, unless the student, the student’s parent, and a school official agreed that the student could opt out. Beginning in 2007, students would have to complete the core sequence of courses for admission to the state’s four-year public colleges and universities.

The bill grew out of a legislative study suggesting that the best way to increase students’ access to higher education and to improve their preparation for it was to ensure that they complete a more rigorous course of study while in high school. Last year, Texas lawmakers mandated replacing an existing 10th grade exit test with a more rigorous 11th grade test that could also be used to predict students’ readiness for higher education. The test, which the Texas Education Agency and the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board are developing jointly, will be given for the first time in 2002-03, but will not count for graduation until 2003-04.

  • In Oklahoma, the state regents for higher education are spending about $750,000 a year on an “educational planning and assessment system” that tests students in the 8th and 10th grades to determine whether they are on track to succeed in college, and whether they are taking the necessary academic coursework. Last school year, 438 of the state’s more than 500 school districts volunteered to give the tests, produced in partnership with ACT Inc., the Iowa City, Iowa-based developer of the ACT undergraduate-admissions test. In 1999, 37 percent of Oklahoma’s first-time college freshmen were enrolled in remedial courses, the lowest percentage in four years, and 2000 ACT scores for high school students were at an all-time high, with minority students showing the largest gains.

Hans Brisch, the chancellor of the Oklahoma regents’ system, said the expense is well worth it. “I think we need to realize that all of us are in this business together to assure that students from prekindergarten through their doctoral work have an appropriate opportunity to succeed,” he said.

Such efforts to bridge the divide between precollegiate and higher education are hardly new. But in the past few years, they have taken on a growing sense of urgency and focus.

“You could safely say a majority of states have some initiative under way that is attempting to systematically link K-12 and postsecondary education,” said Esther M. Rodriguez, the associate executive director of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, based in Denver.

‘What Business Are You In?’

At the 1999 National Education Summit, governors and corporate leaders agreed that states should move to “align higher education admission standards with new high school graduation standards and reduce or phase out remediation at four-year institutions.”

The partnerships have been propelled, in part, by concerns over the quality and preparation of the nation’s teaching force; by efforts to seek alternatives to race-based admissions policies; and by the growing proportion of high school graduates who have set their sights on higher education.

If universities could do a better job of signaling what they expect of incoming students, the argument goes, they could increase the number of students who are well prepared for college, particularly from minority and disadvantaged groups; reduce the percentage of recent high school graduates who need remedial coursework; and increase the college-graduation rate.

While more than seven in 10 recent U.S. high school graduates enroll in postsecondary education, nearly half of all college students take at least one remedial course, and more than one-quarter of freshmen at four-year colleges and nearly half of those at two-year colleges do not even make it to sophomore year. Of those who start college, fewer than half eventually earn a bachelor’s degree, according to the Education Trust. “We have institutions in this state where 85 percent of their incoming freshmen class are doing developmental education,” said Omar S. Lopez, the director of the college-success initiative at Just for the Kids, a nonprofit data and research organization based in Austin, Texas.

“I’ve had to ask several college presidents, ‘What business are you in? Are you in the higher education business, or are you in the glorified K-12 business?’” Mr. Lopez said. “I tell them: ‘You’ve got a choice. You can either continue to let it happen to you, or you can get out there and work with the high schools to get the kids you need.’ ”

Policymakers also hope that the involvement of higher education could lend new legitimacy to high school standards and tests and increase students’ motivation to do well on them.

In Illinois, for example, students are not required to pass the new Prairie State Achievement Examinations to earn a high school diploma. But state schools Superintendent Glenn W. “Max” McGee argues that tying the tests to college admissions is an even more powerful incentive, because it’s not punitive. The mandatory tests include the traditional ACT exams in English, mathematics, reading, and science, in addition to state-developed items in writing, science, and social studies.

“Philosophically, this is what we know we need to do,” Mr. McGee said. “We need to have high expectations for all kids and opportunities for access to postsecondary education, which the ACT provides.”

What’s Expected

The idea that tests geared to a state’s high school standards could also be used for college admissions and placement gained new currency in February, when Richard C. Atkinson, the president of the 170,000-student University of California system, proposed doing away with the SAT I as a requirement for admissions, in part, because of concerns that it was having a distorting effect on the K-12 curriculum. “UC President Pitches Plan To End Use of SAT in Admissions,” Feb. 28, 2001 and related story, “SAT Said To Be Reliable Predictor of College Success,” May 9, 2001.)

In its place, Mr. Atkinson proposed developing tests directly tied to the college-preparatory courses that high school students take. As an interim measure, he recommended continuing to use the SAT II exams, which measure a student’s knowledge of specific subjects.

“One of the key aspects of my recommendations is that these admissions tests be clearly correlated with the curriculum that the student has been exposed to in high school,” Mr. Atkinson said in an interview. “I really want the students to understand what they’re being tested on and how to prepare for it.”

In addition, he said, “I want to send a message back to the students and schools that if they do well in their coursework, they’ll do well in the admissions exams.”

California is currently phasing in new end-of-course tests in high school. Both the University of California system and the California State University system also are exploring setting scores on the Golden State Examinations that could be used for admissions purposes. Students in California now take the subject-matter, end-of-course tests on a voluntary basis.

A joint committee of the California legislature, meanwhile, is drafting a new master plan for education, from kindergarten through higher education, that is designed, in part, to align standards across the grades. Charles B. Reed, the chancellor of the 380,000-student CSU system, said working to improve the state’s public schools serves the university system as well.

“Ninety-eight percent of all our students come from the public schools,” he said, “and if the public schools get better, we’re going to get better.”

In 1998, the 22-campus California State system reported that 57 percent of its freshmen had to take a remedial-English course, and 54 percent had to take a remedial-math course. The goal is to reduce those figures to 10 percent by 2007, in part by working with several hundred high schools to align their mathematics teaching with university standards and expectations. The university’s English faculty also has produced an online practice exam that high school students can take to identify and address any writing problems before they graduate from high school.

“In the long run, there’s a broad self-interest here,” said Patrick M. Callan, the president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, based in San Jose, Calif. “What is new and exciting is that there’s all this energy within higher education that it’s both part of the problem and part of the solution.”

Partnership Not Easy

Still, Mr. Callan and others admit that devising a working partnership between the two systems will not be easy. In many states, the governance, finance, and accountability systems for K-12 and higher education operate on two separate tracks. Although some states, such as Georgia, have formed councils or advisory bodies focusing on preschool through college, many states lack a public forum in which representatives of precollegiate and higher education can hammer out their differences.

Similarly, few states have data systems that span kindergarten through college. Although postsecondary institutions in 21 states provide high schools with “feedback reports” about how their graduates are faring in college, said Ms. Rodriguez of the State Higher Education Executive Officers, it’s not clear that districts are actually using such information to modify their curricula or teaching.

Moreover, despite the rhetoric, many in higher education remain leery about getting too involved in K-12 issues. Many colleges and universities view K-12 standards as “changing all the time,” said Michael W. Kirst, a professor of education at Stanford University, “and they’re very wary of hooking policies like admissions and placement to a moving target.”

In addition, he said, many university officials want predictive studies of whether students’ performance on state tests is actually linked to success in college before deciding whether to use such tests for admissions purposes.

“They’re also concerned about the politics of it,” said Mr. Kirst, who is directing a project on K-16 transition policies for the Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research. “They see it as a highly political process, and higher education has historically wanted to shield its admissions and placement decisions from political negotiations with governors and legislators.”

Moreover, higher education institutions rarely speak with one voice about the expectations they have for incoming students and how to assess whether students have met those standards. In the Southeast alone, Mr. Kirst noted, colleges and universities use nearly 125 combinations of 75 different placement exams to determine the skill levels of incoming freshmen. Those variations are bewildering for parents and students who need to know how to prepare for college.

According to a survey by the higher education executive officers’ group, 28 states have adopted statewide admissions requirements for their public colleges and universities, and six more states have some system- or state-level involvement in setting admissions policies. Even so, admissions requirements may vary at different colleges within a state, and many institutions view the ability to set their own admissions and placement standards as a fundamental right.

Mr. Atkinson’s proposal on admissions testing, for example, must be reviewed by the University of California’s academic council, the representative body of the faculty, and ultimately by the UC board of regents.

“One of the things that’s clear at the University of California is this is a faculty issue,” Mr. Atkinson said, “so it will be a matter that will be argued out by the faculty.”

‘A Terrible Idea’

Despite the high proportion of high school graduates who now enroll in higher education, many analysts also question whether one test should be used both to award diplomas and to afford access to colleges and universities.

Some critics argue that there’s already too much emphasis on using standardized tests to judge student achievement. While many students plan to go to college, they add, requiring all teenagers to have college-ready skills to earn a diploma is unrealistic.

“High school tests are being offered in some states that I know I couldn’t pass,” Alfie Kohn, the author of The Case Against Standardized Testing, said at a recent meeting at the Cato Institute in Washington, “at least not without a lot of pointless cramming.”

Monty Neill, the executive director of FairTest, an advocacy group based in Cambridge, Mass., said using the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, or MCAS, for college admissions or placement purposes is “a terrible idea.”

“The test has no demonstrated predictive ability to show how well students will do in college,” Mr. Neill said. “It would take 10 years to know that; they’re trying to rush this through.”

In addition, he contended, using the test for such purposes would further harm the college prospects of poor and minority students and those with special needs, who fail the state exam at disproportionately high rates.

Ms. Gill said high school coursetaking and GPA are the primary tools for making admissions decisions, and students’ SAT scores are only used now if their GPA falls below a minimum level.

Until recently, most high school exit tests have focused on minimum competency rather than on the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college.

A 1999 study, co-sponsored by the Education Trust and the National Association of System Heads, a group representing 52 public higher education systems, found that high school tests, by and large, were geared to a much lower level than either college admissions or placement exams. They generally featured nonacademic reading passages, for example, rarely went beyond Algebra 1 or geometry in mathematics, and, if they required writing at all, tended to ask for personal or reflective essays rather than analysis or persuasion based on something a student had read or observed.

In many states, similar gaps between the courses required to earn a diploma and those needed to enter postsecondary education can be seen. In 1999, for example, only 13 states required students to take an algebra or geometry course to graduate, according to the Education Trust. Yet studies show that the best predictor of college success is whether students have taken a rigorous college-preparatory curriculum in high school.

In Maryland, where K-12 and higher education faculty members have been working together to devise standards that could be used both for high school graduation and college entrance, educators have yet to agree on the mathematics that all students should master. While university professors want all incoming freshmen to have mastered the equivalent of Algebra 2, high school educators are not convinced that’s realistic.

In Oklahoma, an analysis of the state’s K-12 curriculum frameworks found that the “higher-order skills that were needed for the ACT and for college success were not contained in the state’s K-12 framework,” particularly in the areas of math and science, said Dolores A. Mize, the assistant vice chancellor for the state regents for higher education. So the state has begun a benchmarking project with Achieve Inc., a Cambridge, Mass.-based nonprofit group, to review Oklahoma’s academic standards and tests.

“A problem for K-16 in this whole conversation is when states overwhelmingly tie their assessment systems to minimum high school graduation requirements,” said Mr. Kirst of Stanford. “If that’s the focus of your assessments, your standards, and your accountability systems, then it often mitigates the usefulness for higher education.”

Even in states where the tests measure more demanding skills, colleges and universities would probably set a higher passing score on the tests, for either admissions or placement purposes, than the threshold for earning a high school diploma.

But Floyd Coppedge, the secretary of education in Oklahoma, said the biggest obstacle is still overcoming people’s preconception that most students are not headed to college.

“There really is a mind-set in Oklahoma that we’re still trying to overcome that what was good enough for me is good enough for the kids today,” he said. “And that mind-set, which frankly gets more often played out by educators than by anyone else, says we’ve got this population of kids that don’t need to be that well educated.”

In addition to the efforts by individual states, a host of national initiatives are focusing on ways to close the gap between the K-12 and higher education systems.

For example, Standards for Success, which organized last month’s meeting in New Jersey, is a national project that is trying to analyze the relationship between K-12 standards and assessments and university admissions.

Real- World Analysis

The project, which is sponsored by the Philadelphia-based Pew Charitable Trusts and the Washington-based Association of American Universities, so far involves about 15 research universities. It will seek to draw up a statement of the key knowledge and skills required for success in AAU institutions, which high schools can then use to shape their curricula and teaching. It also will analyze state content standards and assessments, and initiate longitudinal studies, to see if state tests can be used for admissions, placement, and merit-based financial-aid decisions.

At the one- day meeting in Piscataway, for example, professors of mathematics, science, foreign languages, English, and the social sciences met in separate rooms to try to reach agreement on the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in their freshmen-level courses. The professors, who teach at New York University, Penn State, or Rutgers, also looked at samples of freshman work that would be representative of “adequate” or “exemplary” performance and reviewed state standards documents.

“I was flabbergasted at the number of students in my developmental, noncredit courses that had taken two to three years of academic math in high school,” said Joyce Zajac, the director of the Center for Academic Achievement at Penn State in University Park, Pa. “It just blows my mind.”

Vincent Renzi, who directs the humanities and social sciences component of the undergraduate curriculum at NYU in New York City, said: “I don’t just want to be remediating high school failures. I want to go beyond that.”

“A state competency model is a minimum standard for getting out of high school,” Mr. Renzi added, “and what we’re interested in is helping [students] accelerate to get to the top.”

The Education Trust, Achieve, the Washington-based Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and the National Alliance of Business, also located in Washington, are planning a two-year project that would try to identify the core knowledge and skills in reading, writing, and mathematics that people need to succeed both in college and in high-performance workplaces. The assumption is that the demands of both settings are increasingly similar.

“For me, the key question that states are ultimately going to have to answer, once they’ve made passing an exam a requirement for graduation, is are these requirements grounded in a real-world analysis of what kids need to know and be able to do to be successful in some next step,” said Robert B. Schwartz, the president of Achieve. “Our sense is that state policymakers, looking at this issue of high school exit requirements, haven’t done a lot of ‘due diligence’ to ground those requirements in such real-world analyses.”

But Mr. Callan of the National Center for Public Policy in Higher Education, cautioned, “We still have a long way to go in terms of figuring out how to do this at the scale that it needs to be done.”

“I think it’s still, at best, a state-by-state confluence of forces that we’re looking toward,” he said. “There’s still a lot of tentativeness, a lot of trial and error. It would be premature to declare victory.”

A version of this article appeared in the May 09, 2001 edition of Education Week as K-12 and College Expectations Often Fail To Mesh


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