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CLOSING THE EXPECTATIONS GAP: Transitioning State Policies and Practices to Prepare All Students for College and a Career

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“All fifty states deserve credit for confronting the expectations gap—that is the gap between what it takes to earn a high school diploma and what the real world actually expects graduates to know and be able to do,” said Achieve President Mike Cohen.

Vol13No23CCRA new report from Achieve finds that states have made “tremendous” progress in adopting academic standards aligned with college and career readiness, but less progress in state policy and practice around high school graduation rates. The eighth annual report, Closing the Expectations Gap: 2013 Annual Report on the Alignment of State K–12 Policies and Practice with the Demands of College and Careers, also examines progress on assessments and accountability systems and contains findings based on Achieve’s fifty-state survey.

“All fifty states deserve credit for confronting the expectations gap—that is the gap between what it takes to earn a high school diploma and what the real world actually expects graduates to know and be able to do,” said Mike Cohen, Achieve’s president. “But raising standards is just the start. Supporting teachers and leaders with the time and tools they need to change classroom practice is critical, and many states are doing just that. It is also important to align graduation requirements, assessments, and accountability policies to college- and career-ready standards.”

Since 2005, when the first Closing the Expectations Gap report was released, all fifty states and the District of Columbia have adopted some form of college- and career-ready (CCR) standards in English language arts and mathematics, whether the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or, as in the case of Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia, their own state-developed standards that reflect college- and career-ready expectations and have been verified by state postsecondary institutions.

The report notes that nearly all states plan to fully implement these higher standards by 2014–15, but they could face challenges in ensuring that educators have the support necessary to improve their instruction so that all students receive effective instruction on the full set of CCR standards.

While states have moved ahead in adopting CCR standards, they have slipped slightly in graduation requirements. According to the report, only nineteen states and the District of Columbia, down from twenty-one in 2010, require students to complete a course of study aligned with state-adopted CCR standards. Furthermore, only half of states have elevated their graduation requirements to match the newly adopted CCR standards. This misalignment means that students may have the opportunity to take courses designed to prepare them for college and a career but are not required to do so, nor will they be assessed on their mastery of the CCR standards, a loophole that will likely leave some students unprepared for the rigors of college and a career.

The report suggests that states review the “alignment among their graduation requirements, CCSS/CCR standards and high school assessments,” and encourages states to require students to meet CCR-aligned graduation requirements that are rigorous and consistent throughout the state.

Nineteen states are in a position to administer assessments aligned with CCR standards that can be used by colleges and universities to make enrollment decisions, and five states have developed assessments aligned with their state standards. That leaves fourteen states that still require students to take a college admissions test, like the ACT or SAT. The report notes that while most states are on track to implement assessments aligned with CCR standards, policymakers must resist recent financial and political pressure to abandon or delay plans to do so.

The report recommends that state leaders become advocates for high-quality assessments that support and reinforce rigorous standards, as well as openly inform students and the public the purpose of the tests and their importance for ensuring college and career readiness.

Little progress was made in the last year on states developing comprehensive accountability systems. Achieve’s four key components to a successful accountability system are (1) setting goals for improving college and career readiness for all students; (2) reporting CCR results to parents and the public; (3) incentivizing schools and districts to improve student performance: and (4) differentiating and classifying schools based on the CCR student results. No state has currently developed and/or implemented an accountability system with all four components. However, thirty-five states have incorporated at least one of the aforementioned measures of accountability into their existing systems, an improvement of three states since last year.

Two key components of transitioning state policy and practices to systems that ensure students are ready for college and a career are (1) preparing teachers to teach to CCR standards and next-generation assessments and (2) providing additional supports for students to meet the higher standards. The report recommends that states leverage every opportunity for collaborative professional learning and development around the new CCR standards.

States should also seek to provide additional interventions and supports for struggling students to ensure they catch up and succeed under the CCR standards, the report finds, and notes that expanded learning time for the students who need additional assistance is one practice that is showing great potential.

Overall, the report finds that states need to take a comprehensive, strategic approach to incorporating all four areas—standards, graduation requirements, assessments, and accountability—into a cohesive education system that prioritizes students’ readiness for college and a career. Significant improvement should be made in all four core areas, especially in the area that showed the least progress—developing and implementing accountability systems.

“This work is complicated and it will take time to get it right,” said Cohen. “Governors, chiefs, and other state and districts leaders must continue to make the work a top priority; they deserve tremendous credit for leading on an issue that is so critical to the future of students, their families, communities, states, and ultimately our country.”

The complete report is available at http://www.achieve.org/files/2013ClosingtheExpectationsGapReport.pdf.

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