The Readiness Agenda

By Catherine Gewertz — September 17, 2009 | Corrected: February 22, 2019 9 min read
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Corrected: An earlier version of this story misstated the name and affiliation of the Educational Policy Improvement Center, and the title of its chief executive officer, David T. Conley.

A lot of hope is riding on a little document in the big state of Texas.

Educators and policymakers who have long agonized over the Lone Star State’s low college-going rate and its high remediation rate are charting a course they hope will lead to better outcomes. And they’re using that document—the Texas College and Career Readiness Standards—as a key navigating tool.

At 43 pages, the standards for college and career readiness are dwarfed by the state’s 480-page core curriculum, known as the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills, or TEKS.

But slim as they are, the readiness standards pack a hefty punch. While the TEKS describe what students must know to finish high school, the readiness standards lay out what they must master to thrive in college.

Developed in a highly unusual collaboration between leaders in K-12 and higher education, they reflect real-world college expectations. And in a process mandated by the state legislature, those expectations have been adopted by Texas’ commissioners of K-12 and higher education, and are being woven into the state’s accountability system.

Educators nationwide are becoming increasingly aware that high school diplomas too often leave young adults unprepared for college. And experts who focus on that gap say Texas’ work puts it at the leading edge of a movement to reshape K-12 education into an experience that ensures students are ready for college or for careers that increasingly demand college-level skill.

Alex Song, left, and Allison Kuntz watch teacher Peter Brunet demonstrate a chemical reaction during a class at Lake Travis High that is intended to prepare students to take Advanced Placement biology.

“I can’t think of another state that has a more comprehensive set of policies to enhance college readiness than Texas does,” says Michael W. Kirst, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University who has worked with the Southern Regional Education Board to advance the issue in Texas.

Other states are beginning to grapple with pieces of the gap separating high school and college. South Carolina, for instance, brought together high school and college instructors to design “paired courses” in English, mathematics, and science that link high school and college content. Those courses are being piloted this year. Massachusetts held regional workshops last year for higher education and high school teams to facilitate coordinated course design.

But experts say Texas boasts more elements of a systemwide effort to align high school with college—either in place or in development—including state laws, standards, assessments, and professional development.

David S. Spence, the president of the Atlanta-based SREB, says assembling those elements requires support in multiple, pivotal places, something advocates were fortunate to secure in Texas.

“Part of this is getting everyone on the same page,” he says. “We had the legislature, governor’s office, higher ed, and K-12, all with their shoulders behind this. That’s how sustaining policy can get made.”

Texas has been working to improve high schools in many ways in recent years, including using more-strategic anti-dropout tactics, offering cash rewards for Advanced Placement performance, and moving statewide to boost rigor and choice in dozens of schools. The legislature created the framework for a systemic approach in 2006, when it mandated that “vertical teams” from precollegiate and higher education design college- and career-readiness standards.

What Students Need to Know

The College and Career Readiness Standards describe the skills and knowledge that Texas students need to succeed in an entry-level credit-bearing college course. Each of the five areas defines multiple “key content” and “organizing components” of the discipline; goals, or “performance expectations”; and more specific tasks, or “performance indicators.”
Here are examples from each subject area.

Key content: Writing
Organizing component: Compose a variety of texts that demonstrate clear focus, the logical development of ideas in wellorganized paragraphs, and the use of appropriate language that advances the author’s purpose.
Performance expectation: Recognize the importance of revision as the key to effective writing. Each draft should refine key ideas and organize them more logically and fluidly, use language more precisely and effectively, and draw the reader to the author’s purpose.
*Performance indicator: Strengthen thesis statements, supported by relevant evidence and examples, cogent reasoning, anecdotes, and illustrations.

Key content: Probabilistic Reasoning
Organizing component: Counting principles
Performance expectation: Determine the nature and the number of elements in a finite sample space.
*Performance indicator: Determine the number of ways an event may occur using combination and permutation formulas and the Fundamental Counting Principle.

Key content: Interdependence of Global Communities
Organizing component: Spatial understanding of global, regional, national, and local communities
Performance expectation: Analyze how and why diverse communities interact and become dependent on each other.
*Performance indicator: Analyze the causes and long-term impact of immigration from a given region to a given country.

Key content: Key Cognitive Skills
Organizing component: Reasoning
Performance expectation: Construct well-reasoned arguments to explain phenomena, validate conjectures, or support positions.
*Performance indicator: Organize an argument separating fact from opinion.

*The performance indicators were not formally adopted in Texas, but are included as illustrative examples.
Source: Educational Policy Improvement Center

In 2007, lawmakers approved a measure phasing in end-of-course tests to replace the comprehensive exams high school students had been taking to graduate. A bill passed earlier this year expanded on the 2006 law by holding schools accountable not just for how many students pass the end-of-course tests, but how many score at a higher, college-ready level. It requires the commissioners of K-12 and higher education to specify college-ready test-score levels, and allows those test results to be used to exempt students from remedial courses in the state’s system of 101 public colleges and universities.

The readiness standards were designed in 2007 by teams of K-12 and college instructors, in a process facilitated by the Educational Policy Improvement Center in Eugene, Ore., and its chief executive officer, David T. Conley. Drawing on Mr. Conley’s previous work, the teams specified the content knowledge and cognitive skills necessary for success in entry-level credit-bearing courses in English, math, science, and social science, and those applicable across all disciplines.

After a public-feedback period, the standards were made final. They were adopted by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, which oversees the state college and university system, in January 2008, and by the state commissioner of K-12 education that April.

The Texas higher education system then asked instructors in 20 of its highest-enrollment entry-level courses to analyze the standards’ importance in their own courses. More than 900 did so. From there, “reference,” or composite, college courses were created that capture the content that students can expect in typical entry-level courses. Course materials, syllabuses, assignments, reading lists, and student work samples were assembled to accompany the reference courses.

Evelyn Hiatt, the deputy assistant commissioner for college-readiness programs at the higher education board, says she hopes all the materials will be online within a month, for use by high school teachers in preparing their students, and by college teachers to help them reflect on their own courses. Model assignments for high school seniors are also being designed.

Those working to align high school and college in Texas hope these efforts will encourage college-going and reduce the need for remedial studies once students arrive. Of recent Texas high school graduates, four in 10 don’t go to college, and half of those who enroll in the state’s public colleges and universities require remediation, according to Raymund A. Paredes, the state commissioner of higher education.

In reshaping the path from the K-12 system to college, Mr. Paredes says, it isn’t only college that has valuable guidance for high school. Rather, it’s a two-way street.

“It won’t work for higher ed to tell high school what to do. It’s a conversation,” he says. “We tell them they don’t send us well-prepared students. They tell us that when they send us qualified students, we don’t nurture them, they get disillusioned, and they drop out. We all have something to learn here.”

The vision of coordinated college-readiness work is lofty, but the real work of putting it together can run into thorny realities.

“The narrative is always more linear and more coherent than the actual history,” says Harrison Keller, the vice provost for higher education policy at the University of Texas at Austin, who worked on the college-readiness legislation when he was the research director and senior education policy adviser to the Texas House of Representatives.

For example, the governor of Texas appointed a college-readiness commission in 2007 to do work similar to what the vertical teams were already doing. The head of that commission, Sandy Kress, a Texas lawyer and former senior education adviser to President George W. Bush, says he knew that tensions between the two projects were “inevitable,” but that overlapping membership and cross-consultation led to the commission’s “blessing as well as influencing” the standards the vertical teams produced.

“It got a little messy and had its little confrontations,” Mr. Kress says. “But it was the first robust process in the history of the state in which people from all kinds of camps and across the big K-12-college divide had a systematic exercise to visit each other and figure out how to build a road from one to the other.”

Another awkward spot, some observers say, was that the state board of education, which oversees K-12 curriculum standards, was required to “back map” the readiness standards into its curriculum standards, even though it lacked formal authority to approve them. The board was in the process of revising the Texas core curriculum standards when the readiness standards were completed.

“It wasn’t clear how the work on [readiness] standards was supposed to intersect with the state board’s work,” Mr. Keller says.

Lizzette Reynolds, the deputy commissioner of statewide policy and programs for the Texas Education Agency, which oversees K-12 schools, says the writing teams that were revising the content standards integrated the readiness standards as they went. State board member Barbara Cargill says she and her colleagues had ample opportunity for input as that process unfolded.

State Rep. Ron Eissler, a Republican who co-sponsored the House of Representatives’ bill on college readiness this year, says getting the unwieldy K-12 and higher education systems to coordinate smoothly is like “herding cats.” But high school students will never thrive in college, he says, unless their teachers know what will be expected of them when they get there.

“If your goal is to play with the big boys, you need to know what the big boys expect,” Mr. Eissler says.

While the readiness standards play a pivotal role in articulating college expectations, many of those who have shaped the Texas effort say the end-of-course exams, which are still being designed, could be the piece of the system that makes or breaks the desired alignment.

“There is a risk that if the tests end up going headlong into multiple-choice, you lose that capacity to get at these more sophisticated ways of thinking embedded in the standards,” says Mr. Conley, who is a professor at the University of Oregon.

Even as the readiness system evolves, K-12 and higher education leaders are devising ways of reaching past the traditional divide to better prepare students for college.

The state education agency and the higher education coordinating board are planning joint professional development, for both precollegiate and college teachers, around the readiness standards. The college and university system has expanded summer “bridge” programs for high school students, and is fostering regional vertical teams that help clusters of high schools work with their local community colleges and state universities.

For instance, in six San Antonio-area districts, teams from the high schools and local colleges and universities are analyzing course data and tracking outcomes of the first two years of college in four core content areas, says Ms. Hiatt.

“That lets them look at kids that graduated from their particular high school and say, ‘If you took Algebra 2 and got an A, you had a 30 percent chance of ending up in [remedial] ed. Why is that?’ ” she says. “These vertical teams are looking at local data, and saying, ‘Whoa, we have to do something about what’s going on at this grade level, in this course.’ ”

Some are confident that the alignment work in Texas will have a positive impact. Mr. Spence of the SREB says that while the system is far from complete, he is optimistic that it will produce clearer expectations and better strategies that lead to higher achievement.

Others are reserving judgment. It “remains to be seen whether it will translate into real educational opportunity for students,” says Mr. Keller of the University of Texas.

And there is always the question of protecting hard-won progress as political winds shift. Mr. Kress says it will be an ongoing battle to keep all forces headed in the same direction.

“It’s like a mouthful of crooked teeth—you take off the braces, and everyone wants to go back to where they were,” he says. “There is no simple way to do this. It’s going to take many years. You can’t think one step forward is the final step.”

Coverage of pathways to college and careers is underwritten in part by a grant from the Carnegie Corporation of New York.
A version of this article appeared in the September 23, 2009 edition of Education Week as The Readiness Agenda


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