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prepare for different entry requirements at different colleges.
The University of California accredited high schools in the
early 20th century to make sure the curriculumwas adequate
for university preparation. But this K–16 academic standards
connection frayed and then broke open, and the only
remaining major linkage is usually teacher preparation in an
education school. Aptitude tests like the SAT replaced subject-
matter standards, and secondary school curriculum electives
including vocational education and life skills proliferated in
many directions beyond postsecondary
Unlike the early 20th century, today
faculty members in discipline-based
professional organizations across K–16
levels interact rarely, and policymakers
even less. Higher education
coordinating boards rarely extend their
“coordination” to K–12.
The only nationally aligned K–16
standards effort is the Advanced
Placement program, utilizing a
common content syllabus and exam.
A passing score on an AP exam is one indicator of college
preparation. But because 33 percent of all AP students do not
take the AP exam, many AP students may not be benefiting
much fromAP’s close link to postsecondary standards.
There is no plan in the U.S. to relate the content and
experience of the last two years in high school to the first two
years of college so that the student experiences a continuous
process conceived as a whole. Consequently, confusion reigns,
with some contending that general education is supposed
to prepare students for a specialized major, while others
believe general education is an antidote to specialization,
vocationalism and majors.
It is very difficult with available evidence to ascertain the
current status of general education. The role of the senior
year in providing general education rarely is discussed, even
though many seniors go directly to specialized university
departments such as business.
In 1992, Clifford Adelman analyzed student transcripts
from the National Longitudinal Study. He emphasized that
students did very little course work that could be considered
part of general education. Less than one-third of college
credits came from courses that focused upon cultural
knowledge, includingWestern and non-Western culture,
ethnic or gender studies. Adelman also found that 26 percent
of bachelor’s degree recipients never earned a single college
credit in history; 40 percent earned no credits in English
or American literature; and 58 percent earned no credits in
foreign languages.
The standards movement and K–16 disjuncture
Education standards have swept across the country,
engulfing almost every state. Forty-six states have created
K–12 content standards in most academic subjects, and
all but Iowa and Nebraska have statewide K–12 student
achievement tests. At the state level, there is progress toward
focusing on, and clarifying what students must know and be
able to do in the K–12 grades, and how to align standards,
assessments, textbook selection and accountability measures
at the K–12 level.
A gaping hole in this reform strategy, however, is the lack
of coherence in content and assessment standards between
K–12 systems and higher education institutions and systems.
Unless we close this standards gap and align K–16 policies,
students and secondary schools will continue to receive a
confusing array of signals and will not be able to prepare
adequately for higher education. The current scene is a “Babel
of standards,” rather than a coherent strategy.
U.S. higher education relies on the SAT and ACT to
provide some national assessment uniformity, but neither
of these assessments is completely aligned with the recent
upsurge in K–12 standards. Moreover, the situation is even
more disjointed concerning higher education placement tests.
In the southeast United States, for example, in 1995 there were
125 combinations of 75 different placement tests devised by
universities with scant regard to secondary school standards.
As a result, K–12 and university entrance and placement
assessments usually utilize different formats, emphasize
different content, and take different amounts of time to
Universities hope that the SAT and ACT will make
adjustments to accommodate these new K–12 standards,
and feel most comfortable with these two assessments that
they know and can influence. Many universities are wary
of being subjected to a higher education version of K–12
state-accountability systems, and seek to avoid the political
quagmire surrounding high-stakes testing.
Given the volume of applications, the selective universities
are getting the students they want, so they see no need to
implement an alternative to junior-year SAT/ACT assessment.
In some states, the governor’s office is the most logical place
to put these fractured standards systems together, but higher
education leaders (especially from private universities) want
to guard their political independence from gubernatorial and
legislative specification of admissions criteria.
Because each state has a distinctive K–12 standards and
assessment system, it is not clear what can be done nationally.
For example, President Clinton’s advocacy of a national
voluntary test died after protests concerning states’ rights.
Aligning and improving standards and assessments
Postsecondary education needs to send consistent and
clearer signals (accompanied by appropriate incentives) to
seniors concerning academic preparation. The concepts of
content and standards alignment are promising, but also have
deleterious effects if not done properly. For example, K–16
alignment focused upon low-level or inappropriate content
would make matters worse. Some K–12 state assessments
are at such a basic level that they are inappropriate for use in
postsecondary education.
Two recent analyses of K–16 assessments exposed the
similarities and differences among K–16 visions of what high
school students need to know and to be able to do. A 1999
report of the Education Trust demonstrated the range in
mathematics. The high school tests rarely extended beyond
algebra and geometry, with content coverage similar to
SAT I. But the placement exams had considerable emphasis
Neither K–12 nor
education claims the
academic content of the
senior year as a basis
for further education.