A critical policy strategy-once the goal of significant increases in state educational capital is clearly articulated and accepted-is a redefinition of accountability. The substance of accountability must ultimately be based on specific educational outcomes and performance-that is, on the knowledge and skills achieved by individuals at the various levels of education.
For colleges, this involves a shift in emphasis away from conventional proxies for learning, such as credit hours and contact hours, and toward greater reliance on assessment of knowledge and skills. For all education, learning rather than time should increasingly become the basis for the transition from one level to the next. Accountability for all educational providers, including schools, colleges, universities, and for-profit institutions, will mean demonstrating gains in student knowledge and skills.7 Defining accountability in terms of specific knowledge and skills all students must acquire is an opportunity to extend and link into higher education the progress made in school reform on standards and assessment.
We do not advocate a single universal system of state accountability, nor do we believe that such a single system is desirable or possible. We do, however, suggest several characteristics that can make state-level systems more effective. These systems would:
- Be based on a "diagnosis"-a sense of the strengths and weaknesses of state populations on the level of educational capital achieved by all young and working-age adults;
- Publicly monitor changes over time-improvement or slippage-in the progress of the state's educational capital; and
- Disaggregate the performance results sufficiently to target problems and develop improvements at the appropriate regional and institutional levels.
Providing a Diagnosis
We suggest that states (and the nation as a whole) begin with public accountability systems that diagnose the strengths and weaknesses in the current stock of educational capital available for an effective and competitive workforce, and for the competent and ethical administration of the nation's democratic responsibilities.
The nation and the states have focused attention over the past 20 or 30 years on documenting the educational capital of their school-age children. The National Assessment for Educational Progress has given the nation and participating states a gauge to measure the mastery of specific content knowledge of fourth, eighth, and twelfth graders. Over 45 states now participate in at least one of the NAEP assessments.8
However, efforts to document the knowledge and skills of young adults (roughly ages 18 to 24) and working-age adults (ages 25 to 49) have not been given the attention commensurate with the demands of the new economy. The National Assessment of Adult Literacy is a measurement of specific adult literacy skills necessary for functioning in a complex society, but only twelve states participated in the program in 1992 and fewer in 2002.9 This is the sole existing assessment of which we are aware that provides comparative information to states about the literacy levels of adults.
Much of the power of the NAEP and the NAAL assessments derives from their comparisons among states. Although each state can develop its own standards and assessments-and many have-progress along this path does not answer questions about whether or not young and working-age adults in any particular state are competitive nationally. Only the national population assessments that include state-specific information fulfill this requirement. Comparisons across states-and increasingly across nations-is essential to an effective national accountability system. The ability of states to compare their education systems with one another and with the nation is a powerful means to raise standards and prevent the inwardly looking, all-above-average, "Lake Wobegon" effect.
Three states recently published higher education report cards that put their state performance in the context of other states and the nation-a first step in making the appropriate diagnosis of the states' educational capital.10 The New Mexico Report Card on Higher Education sets the goal that third graders must read at grade level before advancing and that more students must complete high school with a regular diploma; today, half of the ninth graders who start high school in New Mexico do not complete it (New Mexico Business Roundtable for Educational Excellence and the New Mexico Commission on Higher Education 2002). New Mexico's goals in K-12 education are linked with increasing the proportion of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolling in college.
Oklahoma also links the performance of its school-age population to higher goals for achievement in postsecondary education, and it presents a diagnosis that puts performance in the state in the context of other states and the nation (Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education 2001). Additionally, the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education has published a report card that explicitly links the literacy performance of adults to improvement in participation and completion of some form of postsecondary education (Council of Postsecondary Education 2002).
What these states have done, and others are now beginning to emulate (e.g., Tennessee, West Virginia, Missouri), is to link access to, and success in, some form of postsecondary education explicitly with student performance in high school. Except for these few examples, though, what seems to be missing in the public policy arena, particularly in accountability systems, is a connection across and among the educational sectors. Increasing educational capital for the entire population is a goal that would appear to require effectively linking, for collective action, the disparate and not-very-well-coordinated structures of education.
Few effective links exist today, but one promising example is found in the plans of the California State University to administer its college placement exam to eleventh-grade students, and, by doing so, send clear signals about the requirements of college-level work. Results on the placement exams will determine who must take remedial-level work at CSU. This direct link between educational sectors provides students with the feedback necessary to correct educational deficiencies during the senior year in high school. The CSU plan is likely, at least initially, to reach college-bound students. Extension of future plans to include younger students may also be possible.
States may also choose to develop their own measures to assess their educational capital, particularly to account for regional information or to reach specific state goals. Similarly, colleges and universities might do so to assess progress toward institutional goals.
Our principal contention is that states should develop the capacity to compare their educational capital with that of other states and with the nation. To achieve an adequate diagnosis, we propose that the nation and individual states further develop accountability measures that include an assessment of the knowledge and skills of all young and working-age adults. One strategy to do this is to expand the NAEP and NAAL efforts. Because more states will participate in the NAEP fourth- and eighth-grade assessments as a result of No Child Left Behind, this option shows a great deal of promise. The twelfth-grade assessment is administered only on a national basis: consideration should be given to expanding this to the state level. In addition, expansion of the NAAL should include far more states than the handful that currently participate, and over-samples should be constructed to better reach specific populations (for example, college graduates). Other critical assessments could be developed at national, state, or institutional levels that would further contribute to understanding educational capital.
Kentucky's diagnosis of the literacy skills of college graduates moves in this direction. Kentucky was one of a handful of states that conducted a special administration, or over-sample, of the National Assessment of Adult Literacy to obtain state-specific information on adult literacy, including literacy by educational level. This permitted the state to pinpoint one of its most fundamental educational and social problems: the need to redesign its governance and finance policies to address literacy as a high priority, and to assign institutional responsibilities and monitor progress.
Moving beyond broad assessments of the population and aggregated changes over time, it is also critical for states to invest-as many have-in individual unit record systems. These records would give states the capacity to track individual learners over the course of their education and career, regardless of the institutions or schools they attend. Social security records currently track individuals in the labor market, regardless of employers; unit records of learning outcomes have the capacity to track individuals' educational progress (in terms of attainment and achievement), regardless of the educational institutions attended. Issues of privacy must be addressed to develop public confidence and support, as well as to protect individual data.
Thirty-nine states now have unit record systems that monitor student course progress in postsecondary education. Taken together, these account for over 70 percent of the enrollment in American higher education.11 A number of data elements are common among the 39 systems, including basic demographic data and data on student completion of programs. The next step is within reach: linking these records with K-12 and following students through their postsecondary education experiences.
Use of Information for Improvement
With better assessments and individual student record systems, states and institutions will be able to use incentives and regulatory mechanisms, if necessary, to ensure that the knowledge and skills students acquire at one educational level transfer to the next. Current examples include counting Advanced Placement courses as college credits and facilitating the transfer of community college credits to colleges and universities that grant baccalaureate degrees. Incentives and regulation may be necessary initially to join educational sectors in ways that acknowledge that the acquisition of knowledge and skills at one level of education must link to the next level, regardless of the provider.
Florida and Texas probably have the best student unit record systems to track transfer success between community colleges and four-year colleges. Through these systems, both states can determine how many students transfer and graduate from higher education. The tracking systems contain details about the course-taking patterns of transfer students, provide clues to the barriers that students face, and provide a strong state-level accountability mechanism for measuring institutional progress on student transfer.