Beyond the Rhetoric
Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy
|| Keeping the Focus
College readiness is a complex issue that has dimensions beyond those discussed in this policy brief, including pedagogy, data systems, dual enrollment, and educational finance. While these areas are important, we have focused on those issues where we believe the nation is best poised to make meaningful gains and where we believe our collective experience can add value to the work underway across many states (see Figure 2). We intend for this recommended agenda to complement states' other initiatives and the other sources of information from which they draw.
The National Center and SREB work regularly with governors, legislators, and education officials, and we believe that state policy is a powerful tool that these leaders can use to improve college readiness. The changes we recommend must be statewide. Regional partnerships and institutional innovations, however valuable, cannot substitute for state-level policy in producing fundamental changes in teaching and learning across a state. While it would be ideal for the entire postsecondary sector to partner in the readiness effort, it is best for leaders to focus on obtaining the full support of two-year and less-selective four-year sectors. Participation of these sectors is far more important, since they serve the vast majority of students, and should be easier to obtain, as they are generally more subject to state policy intervention than are selective research universities.
The nation's education priorities include getting more students to stay in high school and graduate, but the agenda we recommend is not primarily a high school reform agenda. Rather, it is aimed at decreasing the gap between college eligibility and college readiness. Further, there are other issues to be researched and resolved about appropriate pathways and standards of readiness for students who choose postsecondary options other than degree programs, including certificate programs, military, or apprenticeships. Our purpose is to build on the growing research consensus that there is a common set of readiness standards for entry into postsecondary degree programs, whether they are associate, bachelor's, career-oriented, or traditional academic programs. As that consensus has developed around reading, writing, and math skills, which we consider the fundamental building blocks of knowledge, we advise states to limit their focus, at least initially, to developing readiness standards in those areas.
At this stage, states need to ensure that the readiness standards in reading, writing and math are sufficiently rigorous to predict success in first-year college classes. Moreover, these standards must be applied to all degree programs in all postsecondary institutions. At the same time, we urge postsecondary education to research empirically the applicability of these standards to readiness
for non-degree programs and to apply them in those areas as well, if relevant.
Finally, we limit our advice to the academic aspects of college readiness, knowing full well that there are many other factors that contribute to a student's readiness to engage successfully in college study. Accordingly, the measure of success, if states adopt our recommended readiness agenda, is greater academic success of students in introductory college-level courses.
The National Center and SREB acknowledge the work that states are doing, many with the assistance and support of organizations such as Achieve, the National Governors Association, the College Board, and ACT. But there is a danger that state leaders will declare victory prematurely.
A recent Achieve survey reported that 31 states have defined college readiness standards. But we know of only a few in which higher education has recognized and applied those precise standards on a statewide basis. Equally important, no more than six states have translated their readiness standards into specific performance-level expectations with school assessments based on the statewide readiness standards. Even fewer states have strengthened school accountability systems
to measure, report, and emphasize improvements in college readiness. Finally, few states are developing comprehensive approaches to ensure that both practicing and prospective teachers are prepared to teach to college readiness standards.
This is a challenging and unsettled time for education policy. Within severely constrained budgets, public officials and education leaders are laboring to keep up with new federal policies aimed at improving P–12 and postsecondary education outcomes while continuing to work on school reform efforts at many levels, including the development of first-ever national competency standards.
A systemic college readiness agenda is not another task to add to these responsibilities. It is an organizing framework, or policy infrastructure, to help states manage the changing world of
It is urgent that states reconsider, renew, and refine their reform efforts. The dire financial conditions of most states make it even more critical that states integrate their efforts into coherent and cost-effective strategies to strengthen college readiness, reduce the costs of remediation, and improve rates of college completion. With most states in the initial stages of building effective statewide college readiness initiatives, it is timely to encourage states now to step up and strengthen their college readiness agendas. The Common Core State Standards Initiative should assist states in focusing public schools and higher education on college readiness standards and incorporating them in high school assessments and college placement tests.