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CLOSING THE EXPECTATIONS GAP: States Make Progress in Setting High Expectations for High School Graduates According to Report From Achieve

“States have shown impressive leadership in adopting college- and career-ready standards and graduation requirements.”

A majority of states have made progress toward setting expectations for high school graduates that are in line with the demands of college and careers, according to Closing the Expectations Gap 2009, Achieve’s fourth annual report on the progress of high school reform efforts in all fifty states. The report examines how many states have raised standards and adjusted their graduation requirements, P–20 data systems, and assessments and accountability systems to meet the expectations of colleges and employers.

“States have shown impressive leadership in adopting college- and career-ready standards and graduation requirements,” said Mike Cohen, the president of Achieve. “They must now go from setting standards to measuring whether they are being met. States must not only raise graduation requirements for students but hold schools accountable for the same result. To prepare all students for postsecondary success, states and districts must also provide the curriculum, instructional tools, and supports students and teachers need.”

The report finds that twenty-three states have already adopted high school standards in English and mathematics that are aligned with college- and career-ready expectations, while an additional fourteen expect to have these standards in place by 2010. According to the report, most states were able to align their standards through formal collaborative partnerships between K–12 and postsecondary education systems, with business representatives significantly involved throughout the process.

As the report explains, taking rigorous high school English and math classes improves a student’s access to and success in first-year, credit-bearing college courses, improves entry into and completion of postsecondary training programs, and is one of the strongest predictors of whether he or she will earn a college degree. It adds that high school students need to take four years of challenging mathematics and four years of grade-level English aligned with college- and career-ready standards to be prepared for success after high school. “Readiness for college and careers depends on more than the mastery of English and mathematics content, but these two content areas cover a set of critical knowledge and skills that all high school graduates should possess,” it reads.

Currently, twenty states and the District of Columbia require all students to complete a college- and career-ready curriculum, according to the report. Of that total, fourteen states require students to automatically enroll in the “default” college- and career-ready curriculum but allow students to opt out if their parents sign a waiver. The other six states and the District of Columbia have mandatory course requirements with no opt-out provisions. Another eight states plan to raise the rigor of their high school requirements to these levels in the future.

When it comes to developing college- and career-ready assessment systems and P–20 longitudinal data systems, only a handful of states currently have these policies in place, but many more plan to enact them in the near future, the report finds. Currently, ten states have developed assessment systems that are aligned to the demands of college and the workplace, but an additional twenty-three plan to do so. Such assessments, the report notes, can signal whether high school students are ready for college-level work while they are still in high school. If students perform poorly, high schools still have time to provide additional help to students prior to graduation and reduce the number of students who require remedial courses in college.

Achieve notes that while only twelve states have operational P–20 longitudinal data systems, all but one of the remaining states (Vermont) plan to have such a system in place. “Just as it is important for states to align expectations, they also must strengthen and align their data systems to track and measure student-level progress between the K–12 and postsecondary education systems,” the report reads. “Having data is just the first step; the next challenge for state leaders is to commit to using data to strengthen the preparation of students for postsecondary success.”

Even though states have made progress in these areas, school accountability systems in most states are not currently anchored in the goal of graduating all students college- and career-ready. Instead, the report notes that the expectations for schools in most states are much lower and are based largely on student achievement results from standardized tests that typically measure eighth- and ninth-grade content. However, it does find that states are beginning to develop more ambitious goals and broaden the indicators that they use to report on school progress and hold schools accountable for improvement.

As demonstrated in the table below, the most prevalent college- and career-ready indicator in state accountability systems is a cohort graduation rate. According to the report, every state and the District of Columbia can—or soon will—track and report publicly a four-year cohort graduation rate. Every state and the District of Columbia has also set a performance goal for this indicator, and forty-one states factor—or plan to factor—this indicator into their accountability formulas. The other key indicators that Achieve studied do not fare as well.

State Accountability System Elements and Their Uses

Publicly Report Set Performance Goal Offer Incentive to Improve Factor into Accountability Formula
Cohort Graduation Rate 23 28 17 34 3 5 14 27
College- and Career-Ready Testing 6 8 1 2 3 0 3 4
College- and Career-Ready Diploma 11 17 8 7 4 1 4 10
College Remediation Rate 18 8 3 5 1 2 2 5
Earning College Credit While Still in High School 9 8 5 3 2 4 0 4

Source: Closing the Expectations Gap 2009

“Although states are paying attention to some key indicators, no state has yet put in place a comprehensive accountability system based on a broad array of college- and career-ready indicators,” the report reads. “These systems will need to mature if high schools are going to have the incentives and resources they need to better prepare students for the challenges that await them after graduation.”

The complete report is available at

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