Public P–12 schools and postsecondary education are complex systems. When they need to function together so that students can transition smoothly from one system to the other, the complexity multiplies. Systemic readiness reform can be accomplished only if all of the system components that affect what teachers teach and what students learn are in place and are coordinated around mutually understood statewide college readiness standards. These components include the standards themselves and the application of the standards through teacher preparation and training, high school assessments and curriculum, college placement, and state accountability systems that reward readiness in both sectors. P–12 and postsecondary education must work together to integrate these various parts of the system.
We believe that initiatives to articulate common state college readiness standards can be an important force in developing consensus around higher, deeper, and more specific skill standards in reading, writing, and mathematics. A systemic college readiness agenda depends on the presence of a statewide set of readiness standards, developed and implemented by schools and colleges, that are the basis of a comprehensive action agenda.
The Southern Regional Education Board (SREB)—who, along with the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, is issuing this policy brief—has developed a model statewide readiness agenda for accomplishing these systemic linkages across the various components of reform.1 The model agenda is summarized below.
1. College readiness standards must be formally adopted by P-12 and postsecondary education
First and foremost, state leaders must recognize that defining college readiness exclusively in
terms of courses and seat time is not a productive approach. In addition to requiring college-prep coursework in high school, states must adopt specific college readiness standards for English language arts and mathematics. These performance standards must be set to true college readiness, even though that will likely be higher than minimum diploma requirements for at least the short term. Setting these standards will require full and official participation of the postsecondary sector, not only the participation of individual faculty as consultants or nominal representatives of these institutions. Standards should be adopted for reading, writing, and math—the cross-cutting, fundamental building blocks of knowledge for all other disciplines. The standards should be clearly linked to state content standards and should be based on skills and competencies, not on high school course titles. They should be limited in number and specific in addressing both what students are expected to know and how well they are expected to know it. States must validate these standards by comparing student performance on the standards to actual performance in introductory college courses.
2. High school assessments must measure progress on the specific state-adopted standards
In order for school-administered assessments to help high school teachers learn how well students, individually and collectively, are attaining readiness skills and knowledge, the assessments must directly measure student performance on readiness standards. Based on such assessments, teachers can tailor instructional methods and/or curriculum to address identified deficiencies. End-of-course exams that are tied directly to a state's readiness standards are well suited to this purpose and are being adopted in several states. Not as well suited are standardized tests, at the state or national level, that are not linked explicitly to state-specific curriculum and standards.2 The assessments associated with the common core state standards may present another option for assessing students' development of reading, writing, and math-related skills across subject levels and grade levels. The exams should be used to direct students into curriculum that is targeted to help them attain readiness, as identified by the standards, by the end of high school. This is particularly important for assessments of 11th graders, which can help target intensive instruction in the student's final high school year.
3. Public school curriculum should reflect the specific statewide readiness standards
Standards and assessments are means to the end of improving teaching and learning. Once the readiness standards are adopted, the curriculum should be modified as necessary, starting at least as early as 8th grade, to embed an explicit focus in each course on the development of reading, writing, and mathematics skills that enable learning at the college level. Of particular importance is the development of supplemental curriculum in the 12th grade to help students who, based on 11th grade assessments, are not on track to be college ready. These senior-year courses could consist of one- or two-semester classes, modules, or tutorials (offered in-person or online), and they should closely reflect the reading, writing, and math skills that are featured in college introductory courses.
4. Teacher development should address the effective teaching of college readiness standards
The achievement of a readiness agenda depends on effective teaching of readiness standards. Teachers can be effective only if they understand the standards, if they know the standards are featured in assessments, and if they are trained appropriately to use the standards. Accordingly, state in-service and pre-service teacher development should focus specifically on the state's readiness standards and how to teach them in grades 8 to 12, both in terms of content and level of performance. Colleges and universities that offer teacher preparation must become fully engaged in this aspect of the readiness agenda. Teacher development must help teachers: construct and adapt courses to address the standards; relate their materials, lessons, and assignments to the standards; design course assessments to ensure shared performance expectations; and identify instructional strategies that are effective in teaching the standards. These elements of teacher development are especially important for teachers of 12th grade supplemental readiness courses.
5. Placement decisions by colleges and universities must use the adopted readiness standards
An overlooked but critical element of systemic college readiness reform is the process by which colleges and universities determine whether students need remediation or can place immediately into college-level introductory classes. Since most states allow postsecondary institutions to conduct placement on their own terms, the colleges and universities, in effect, set their own readiness standards through their decentralized decisions about placement assessments and cut-off scores. It is not uncommon for different placement tests to be used even within a single college system. This hodgepodge of assessment practices sends confusing messages to high schools and their students about the skill sets needed for college success and can thwart otherwise strong state efforts to establish readiness standards. The statewide adoption of common assessment practices across broad-access colleges and universities represents a step forward, but systemic reform will be accomplished only if public schools use the very same standards. Only this will ensure that students who meet their high school's college readiness requirements are indeed college ready.
6. State accountability systems must create incentives across P–16 for college readiness and completion
Despite all the emphasis on accountability in P–12 and postsecondary education, states do not hold either sector accountable for improving college readiness. P–12 schools are accountable in part for high school graduation rates, but this can work against including robust readiness standards within the requirements of a high school diploma. Postsecondary institutions are increasingly being held accountable for their graduation rates, but the expectations to which they are held are often lowered to make allowances for underprepared student populations. States should adjust accountability provisions to: (a) hold P–12 schools accountable in part for the portion of high school graduates who are college ready (that is, based on the standards and assessments described in items 1 and 2 above); and (b) hold postsecondary education accountable for participation and support of college readiness, and for increasing the proportion of remedial students who transition into college courses and the portion of all students who complete college programs. Postsecondary education must be accountable for achieving these gains in readiness and completion while maintaining access to college. States should not allow this readiness agenda to be achieved by reducing college access.