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Claiming Common Ground

State Policymaking for Improving College Readiness and Success


There is widespread agreement among policymakers, the business community, and educational leaders that the United States needs to raise the educational achievement of its young population. Many states have sought to meet this challenge by developing policies to advance and support student achievement in K–12 schools, including standards-based reforms, state assessments, and high school redesigns. Some states have also sought to expand access to postsecondary education in order to increase the numbers of students completing education or training beyond high school. Yet the reforms of K–12 schools have not improved the college readiness of high school graduates, as measured by the percentage of college students who take remedial education, or by college completion rates. Likewise, state policies to expand access to higher education, which have been limited by setbacks in the affordability of college, have not led to higher percentages of the young population obtaining a college degree. Reforming K–12 schools and broadening access to college are necessary but not sufficient conditions for advancing educational opportunity.

In earlier times, when only a small proportion of high school students attended college, it made sense for states to develop and maintain educational policies and governance structures that divided K–12 and postsecondary education into separate entities. Today, however, when the vast majority of high school students aspire to attend college, states need policies that require K–12 and postsecondary education to collaborate to improve the college readiness of all high school students. This report identifies four state policy dimensions for improving college readiness and success: the alignment of coursework and assessments; state finance; statewide data systems; and accountability.

The recommendations in this report build from previous collaborative work among the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, the Institute for Educational Leadership, and the Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research.1 The research began in 2003 with Partnerships for Student Success, a project funded by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. For Partnerships for Student Success, researchers analyzed state-level policies, programs, and governance structures that connect K–12 and postsecondary education in Florida, Georgia, New York, and Oregon. The National Center published the final report of that project, The Governance Divide: A Report on a Four-State Study on Improving College Readiness and Success, in September 2005.

In completing the governance study, we learned a great deal about the range of policy options available to states to connect K–12 and postsecondary education, and we learned that changes in governance structures alone cannot significantly improve the percentage of students who prepare for, enroll in, and succeed in postsecondary education or training. After we completed that project, we broadened our understanding of these issues by examining information about related policy changes in other states. As part of this process, we convened policy and education leaders from across the United States to participate in "State Policy Dimensions for K–12 Reform," a two-day conference held in September 2005 at The Johnson Foundation's Wingspread Conference Center in Racine, Wisconsin (see list of participants). The suggestions of this group helped us clarify our thoughts and expand our understanding of state policy directions. The quotations in the margins of this report represent only a fraction of the insights we gained at the conference.

We are grateful to Achieve, Inc., The James B. Hunt, Jr. Institute for Educational Leadership and Policy, and The Johnson Foundation for partnering with us at Wingspread, and to the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation for its financial support of the meeting and the research. In addition, we would like to thank Boyd H. Gibbons III, President of The Johnson Foundation, and his staff, particularly Carole M. Johnson, Program Officer for Education, Theresa Oland, Director of Communications, and Wendy S. Butler, Program Assistant.

As always, responsibility for errors and misinterpretations remains with the authors. We welcome the responses of readers.

Patrick M. Callan
Joni E. Finney
Michael W. Kirst
Michael D. Usdan
Andrea Venezia

1 Additional joint publications include The Learning Connection: New Partnerships Between Schools and Colleges (2001); Gathering Momentum: Building the Learning Connection Between Schools and Colleges (2002); Betraying the College Dream: How Disconnected Systems Undermine Student Aspirations (2003); and From High School to College: Improving Opportunities for Success in Postsecondary Education (2004).


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