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Moving Beyond Graduation Rates

A conversation with the Education Trust's Kati Haycock on ensuring that more students become college- and career-ready.

A conversation with the Education Trust’s Kati Haycock on ensuring that more students become college- and career-ready.

When evaluating how well high schools are performing, districts typically turn to student test scores and graduation rates. But, just pushing students through the system isn’t properly preparing them for life after high school—whether it’s success in college-level courses or gainful employment. It’s one of the many broken parts of our education system.

As head of The Education Trust, Kati Haycock works tirelessly to address these systemic issues. The nonprofit specifically focuses on improving outcomes for low-income and minority students, which is the population most likely to be shuttled through the system. GOOD spoke to Haycock about how best to prepare students to become college and career-ready.

GOOD: What exactly does it mean to be “college-ready” or “career-ready”?

KATI HAYCOCK: The basic goal here, especially on the college side of college and career-ready, is to have higher education agree that the new “proficient” means ready to begin credit-bearing work in college without the need for remediation.

G: A lot of states have signed on to new common standards. How can we assure that they’re in line with what colleges are expecting? Have they been designed that way?

KH: The ultimate test of that is: Will higher education use these assessments as their assessment of college-readiness and not retest students with another test to throw them into remedial courses. That's why in all the work that led up to the common standards process, higher education and K-12 faculty came at this together. Higher education folks came to the table with: This is the kind of writing that students need to be able to do in freshman level courses, this is the kind of mathematics that necessary in credit-bearing courses. The idea was to crosswalk between the K-12 stuff and to make sure that these new standards guaranteed that if students met them, they were ready.

G: And this is better than just increasing the graduation rate?

KH: A large number of incoming college students—roughly about half in a typical university—require remediation in either writing, reading, or mathematics. When you look at success rates in those courses, they're just terrible: Students that require more than a course or two of remediation never graduate. It’s the same problem with introductory courses of all sorts. If you look at students who are entering college pretty much well-prepared, the D, F, and withdrawal rates in those large introductory courses that are required of most students are huge—somewhere between 30 and 50 percent.

G: Why is there seemingly such a quantum leap between end of high school work and introductory college courses?

KH: In high minority or poverty schools, they don't even offer the courses that kids need to succeed in college—or even to get into college. One choke point is: Do you have enough science courses, math courses, and English composition courses so students can actually meet the requirements? A second choke point is: Even if you do offer, for example, Algebra 1, Algebra 2, a lot of teachers are ill prepared to successfully get students with weak math skills through those courses. So they just put them into the courses and the students fail.

G: To the average person, you’d have to guess that your last statement would be shocking.

KH: The reality is that people think the results they see in reports—“Some kids are doing fine. Some kids are doing poorly. The kids that are doing poorly are most likely to be poor and minority”—has something to do with the kids and their families. What you find instead is that schools aren't organized around the success of hardly anybody. The students who succeed manage to succeed despite the sort of idiotic practices of many schools. No Child Left Behind was designed to identify these schools that were failing kids. But, it doesn’t seem to have worked—in part, because states were dropping standards, so fewer schools were lagging.

The common standards movement is also one of the silver linings of NCLB. In the early years of NCLB, a lot of people promoted the idea that it was grossly unfair to states that had high standards—that schools that were identified and labeled in one state, had they been one state over, would not have been labeled that because that other state had lower standards. Actually, technically, that wasn't true, in the initial years of the law, because it was calibrated that setting a bar at the 20th percentile, no matter what state you were in. But, in the later years, states that had tougher standards were, in fact, at some level, penalized. The broad perception that the law was unfair and that the only way to make federal policy fair was to make a common set of standards and tests helped to create the possibility of national standards.

G: But are common standards a panacea? At this point 35 states and the District of Columbia have adopted them.

KH: There's a gap between the kind of light speed with which these policy changes are getting into place and the much slower pace in school districts today. I've been spending a lot of time out there with school districts all around the country. They are a long way away from knowing about what's being talked about here, much less doing it. Mostly they are hemorrhaging people, they hemorrhaging dollars, and there is a gigantic gap between what's on their minds right now and these big policy changes. When you have school districts that are laying off all of their teaches with fewer than five or 10 years experience, they are not thinking a lot about teacher evaluation, they are not thinking a lot about common standards.

It's right to get excited about these big ideas. And it's fundamentally important that we act on them. But when you're talking about standards, which we don't actually yet have them, they're not enacted, we don't have tests to measure them and we probably won't until 2015, 2016, maybe 2017.

The big challenge really is going to be—and it's a policy challenge but also a challenge for our practice work and everybody else's practice work—is what do you actually do over the next five or six years while the systems necessary to support these big ideas are put into place, to actually continue to make things better for kids and to put kids and schools on a trajectory to really step up to these new standards.

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