Beyond the Rhetoric
Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy
|| State Readiness Efforts Are Not Directed at the Causes of the Readiness Problem
Most states are actively working to improve college readiness. Many have the benefit of assistance from Achieve, through participation in the American Diploma Project. Other national and regional organizations are helping states, including the National Governors Association (NGA), the College Board, ACT, and the Southern Regional Education Board. Many states are also engaged in the effort to develop common core state standards as a basis to improve readiness and postsecondary attainment. All of these efforts are welcome, as the nation faces difficult challenges if it is to once again lead the world in college attainment, as President Obama has proposed. The prevailing approach, however,
is not directly addressing the causes of the readiness gap outlined above.
States are often stymied in their efforts to address the high school diploma-college readiness gap by a set of intractable issues that are based in deeply held philosophical and educational values. In state after state, efforts to increase the level of proficiency required for exit exams or high-stakes, end-of-course exams have been delayed or rebuffed. Faced with what appears to be a choice between substantive college readiness standards and acceptable high school graduation rates, state leaders feel great pressure to not set standards so high as to drop high school graduation rates even lower than they are currently.
However, the dichotomy between substantive college readiness standards and acceptable high school graduation rates is false—and with political courage and proper messaging, state leaders can make that case. For example, states could set college readiness standards that are higher than the minimum requirements for a high school diploma. A college readiness designation could be included on a student's high school transcript or it could be signaled to colleges in other ways. By taking this approach, states can send clear signals about college readiness and can set targets for the hard work ahead to close the gap.
Many states have taken steps to strengthen the course-taking aspect of college readiness, requiring or encouraging students to take a college-prep curriculum. Few states, however, have succeeded in reinforcing the higher-level course approach with an equal emphasis on skill development. Where states have attempted to define college readiness as proficiency standards for reading, writing, and math, the standards are usually too general. They lack specificity with respect to content and especially with respect to specific performance-level expectations (that is, cut-off scores that specify how well students are expected to perform on each standard). Such specificity is needed to provide an explicit link between statewide school curriculum and college readiness standards, so as to influence classroom instruction. Nothing substantial will change unless classroom instruction is affected.
The lack of integration of key learning skills within the college-preparatory curriculum is primarily responsible for the lack of progress in improving college readiness, even among students who have completed the prescribed and recommended courses. Few states have taken the steps needed to assure that reading, writing, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills are explicitly incorporated throughout the college-preparatory curriculum, from English and mathematics to science and social science.
Finally, current efforts in the states to strengthen college readiness do not fully recognize the need to make P–12 and postsecondary education equal partners in the readiness agenda. Many states still view the lack of college readiness as a problem best addressed by P–12 schools. For a high school course of study to yield college-ready graduates, however, both P–12 and postsecondary education must be in complete agreement about explicit readiness standards. Moreover, the two sectors must have a shared stake in success, as measured by the share of high school graduates enrolling directly into and succeeding at college-level courses. Without a shared stake, postsecondary institutions can use lack of readiness as an excuse for their own low graduation rates. Currently, no state accountability system provides incentives for the two sectors to work together to deliver these outcomes.