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When High Schools Graduates Aren’t Ready for College

Enrolling students in college is one challenge, but making sure they can thrive once they get there is another challenge altogether.

Enrolling students in college is one challenge, but making sure they can thrive once they get there is another challenge altogether.

In recent years, policy related to post-high school education has had one primary goal: getting more kids access to two- or four-year colleges. In 2009, more than 70 percent of high school graduates in the United States matriculated to a college or university, up nearly 7 percent from 2000. Insofar as access goes, the mission was being accomplished—and then some.

But more recently, policy has shifted away from simply getting students to enroll in college and toward getting students to actually finish their degrees. In the 1980s, the United States led the world among 25- to 34-year-old degree holders. Today, we rank 12th—with only about half of students enrolling in higher education ultimately earning degrees, a statistic frequently cited by President Obama.

Part of the problem is this: Students entering college are not ready for college-level work. Statistics vary, but there are estimates that upwards of 60 percent of college students require at least one remedial course in either math, reading, or writing. These kids have high school diplomas. But, those diplomas do not necessarily prepare them to handle college-level work.

“Between high school exit requirements, college admission requirements, and then college assessment and placement requirements, in an ideal world, those things would be all one in the same,” explains Bruce Vandal, director of the Education Commission on the State’s Postsecondary and Workforce Development Institute. “Unfortunately, it is most often the case that they are not.”

To address this, state and city school systems are starting to collect data on how the graduates of high schools are performing in college. “While it's important that they graduate with a diploma, they also need to be ready for the next step in life,” says Chad Aldeman, a policy analyst at Education Sector, an independent think tank. “I think recognizing that college- and career-ready data really matters is key to accepting that high school is no longer acceptable as a completion point.”

Among cities, Chicago, Denver, and Philadelphia all have data on how their high school graduates perform in college. This year, New York City also began tracking their graduates, and 21 states are also now collecting data on the remediation rates of its individual high schools.

Florida is a leader in this kind of data mining and it has been grading its schools since 1999. Those scores—which range from A to F—were based entirely on standardized tests administered before the 11th grade even began. “One of the criticisms is that it's been an incomplete picture of high schools,” explains Juan Copa, bureau chief of research and evaluation at the Florida Department of Education. “A lot of the work in high schools happens in junior and senior year.”

Florida also collects data on the performance of graduates from its high schools on placement tests at its community colleges and state universities. This fall, that college-readiness information will be folded into the grades it gives to each high school, along with statistics such as graduation rates and student performance on Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate tests. The more complete grades will also be tied to incentives and penalties for the schools: Those that score highly will earn monetary rewards and support, whereas those that earn an F in two out of four years will see school-choice options extended to its students.

The system certainly will impact what high schools focus on, moving principals and other administrators from aiming their interventions solely at 10th grade test scores. However, when a school is falling behind on the basis of test scores, schools can work to better prepare kids for those exams. But, when a school finds out that its students aren’t being successful at the next level, how does a principal determine what he or she needs to fix?

“You might start to think about, ‘Well my students are doing okay in high school math, but they're not doing well once they reach college math,’” answers Aldeman. “Maybe there's a discrepancy there, and I need to revamp my math curriculum, ask different kinds of questions, make sure my students stay in math courses after they take the 10th grade standardized tests. Maybe it's course-taking, maybe it's changing curriculum.”

Bruce Vandal worries that while the new data paint a more complete picture of how a high school is performing, it arrives too late for the students a school has just turned out. As an alternative, he holds up the example of California’s Early Assessment Program. Through it, extra questions are placed on the state’s 11th grade exam, which are specifically designed to gauge if a student is on track to be ready for coursework at either a California state school or community college.

“What would be much more helpful would be to get a better sense of where students are when they're still in high school,” Vandal explains. “Then you can say, ‘Let's work together with you, high school, and figure out a way to bring those students up to speed, so that when they graduate from high school, not only will they have their high school diploma, but we can say with confidence that they're also ready to be students at our colleges.”

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