Special Report
College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

A Road Map to College and Career Readiness

State efforts to prepare students for the world beyond high school often are too general to be effective.
By David S. Spence — December 29, 2006 7 min read
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David S. Spence

Our nation’s steepest challenges in education are to help more students graduate from high school and to ensure that all high school graduates are well prepared for postsecondary education.

The skills students need to learn effectively in college- or career-preparation programs are the same: the ability to read and write effectively and to think logically and symbolically, as taught in mathematics.

In its 2005 report on college readiness, ACT Inc. found that up to 70 percent of college-admissions-test takers were not ready for college work in reading, writing, and mathematics. This means that meeting the readiness challenge extends far beyond simply having students take the “right” high school courses; most college-bound students already do.

Six years ago or so, some states began to address the college- and career-readiness issue using a standards-based approach. California, Indiana, New York, Oregon, and Texas are among the states that organized statewide or systemwide initiatives that, in their own ways, defined postsecondary-readiness standards and linked them to high school academic standards and assessments. While these efforts are not complete, they do provide a solid base of experience on which other states can build. Since the National Education Summit on High Schools in 2005, sponsored by the National Governors Association and others, a number of states have participated in the nonprofit group Achieve Inc.’s American Diploma Project, which has helped them create a series of steps to define college-readiness standards and align them across higher education and K-12 schools. Some states are making progress in better defining their readiness standards under Achieve’s guidance. The steps guiding this process are sound and logical: Define all postsecondary-readiness standards in a state, align the standards with those in K-12 education, find ways to assess high school students’ performance on the standards, and hold schools accountable for results.

But these action steps have to this point been stated in very general terms, leaving much room for states’ individual interpretations. And, given that states are starting at very different places with respect to existing K-12 and postsecondary academic standards, assessments, governance structures, and political situations, they will interpret and implement the steps in different ways.

So, how far have states come in actually implementing readiness agendas? One view holds that as long as some states are moving forward, we should recognize that there may be very different ways to achieve the readiness goal, and that a more specific direction to guide state efforts is not needed or even possible.

The other view, one that I hold, is that we know enough now—from advanced experiences in a few states and from recent work in others—to suggest much more specific and detailed steps for developing a state readiness agenda. If states adopted some key, proven steps toward readiness standards, their actions would significantly hasten and improve the quality of readiness initiatives in the states, and help more students than ever before complete high school well prepared for college and career studies.

What are these more specific actions states should take to implement a college-readiness agenda? The first is to ensure that the readiness movement is centered where the action needs to be: on classroom teachers, who hold the keys to preparing all students for college and careers. Our high school teachers certainly can do this, but, within many states, the conditions that enable teachers to make college and career readiness their highest priority currently do not exist. All decisions about how to advance a state’s readiness agenda should be targeted toward supporting a classroom-teacher-based focus on readiness.

Second, to provide the clearest possible guidance for high school teachers, each state must develop a single set of reading, writing, and math standards that signals what it means for students to be ready for postsecondary education. Without these statewide standards to guide their work, high school teachers will continue to be confused by the lack of, or different, definitions of readiness coming from various colleges in a state. Only by having all of public postsecondary education—or, at the very least, all open-door, two-year colleges and broad-access, regional universities—reach consensus on a single set of readiness standards can a state provide high school teachers with more-useful guidelines. States also need to clarify that readiness is not about admissions, and that access will not be reduced. Colleges already admit many students who are not prepared for college work, and they will continue to do so. The goal is to have more students ready for college without needing remediation once they arrive on campus.

Who Pays for College

In the average state, students and their families are expected to pick up the vast majority of costs and expenses at public four-year colleges. The federal government picks up less than 10 percent of the costs, in the form of student aid and grants, and state governments provide even less assistance.


SOURCE: National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, 2006

Third, to prevent any mixed signals to teachers, the readiness standards need to be embedded and adopted into the state high school curriculum. In fact, these standards should go beyond merely correlating with state academic standards for high schools—they should be part of the academic standards. States owe their high school teachers one set of standards on which to focus exclusively. More than ever, in this era of school accountability, teachers teach to the official, state-adopted standards. Therefore, the college-readiness standards should be adopted by state boards of education as integral components of the state curriculum. This would eliminate any confusion for teachers and help them make sure students’ work rises to the required level before graduation.

Fourth, to be most useful to teachers, the readiness standards need to be conveyed in performance terms—not just what reading, writing, or math skills are needed, but exactly how well (and at what levels) a student needs to perform these skills. Without the readiness standards—or for that matter, the existing school standards—being defined in performance terms, they are not as useful for teachers. This is a serious deficiency, and it can be remedied only if postsecondary and public school teachers (with the technical assistance of experts on setting performance standards) interact to develop a shared understanding of expected performance levels. This can be accomplished by postsecondary and K-12 teachers jointly evaluating student work and negotiating a shared view of acceptable levels of performance. It will be painstaking, detailed work, but it can yield invaluable results—and a clear sense of exactly how well students must perform. Indeed, this interactive process also will help convey the readiness standards to classroom teachers, through professional development, and to prospective teachers in preparation programs.

Fifth, the high school assessments chosen to indicate whether students have met the readiness standards should be the tests that will draw the highest priority from teachers and that will address most directly the statewide readiness standards. Assessment of college readiness should be done while students are still in high school, before the senior year, giving them time to strengthen their performance before graduation. California’s Early Assessment Program, given at the end of 11th grade, is a good example.

But the kind of test states use is critical, and my experience suggests that teachers will give highest priority to those tests that address directly the state-adopted academic standards and are used for public school accountability. State-originated tests must include the specific readiness standards. While high-stakes graduation tests do not include the kind of rigorous standards to be used for readiness evaluation, many states are moving toward state-developed end-of-course tests in 11th grade English and Algebra 2, through which readiness standards can be more easily tested.

A few states have weighed using the ACT or SAT college-admissions tests, or national placement tests such as COMPASS or AccuPlacer, to determine students’ college readiness. The downside to such an option is that using tests that do not explicitly include the statewide readiness standards will not reinforce teachers’ emphasis on these standards, and may only confuse them.

Nationwide, P-16 initiatives have been hampered by a lack of specificity, focusing more on process and structure than on a clear series of recommended actions and expected results. The five steps I have outlined constitute a much more specific agenda for improving college readiness than now exists. Gaining a state’s commitment to it may well require additional direction from state leaders, including governors (who in 2005 called for state readiness initiatives) and, importantly, legislatures. State lawmakers can establish—by law, resolution, or budget intent—the longer-term, sustained commitment that is needed to bring the postsecondary and K-12 sectors together on a common agenda. A good example of this is recent Texas legislation establishing a process for the standards-setting and alignment components of a statewide readiness initiative.

A final point about urgency and schedule: It is a fact that this specific agenda can be completed within two to three years. In light of the crucial need for states to help more students graduate from high school and complete a college degree or career training, states must commit to a more specific and ambitious plan and accelerate their schedules to meet this challenge


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