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FLUIDITY IN MOTION? NOT YET: New Report Offers Levers to Match High School Requirements to College Expectations

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"This need for some postsecondary education extends beyond individual aspirations. In this global economy, businesses and communities-and our nation as a whole-must have residents who have achieved educational success beyond high school."

The Governance Divide: A Report on a Four-State Study on Improving College Readiness and Success, is a new study from Partnerships for Student Success (PSS), a joint effort of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, Stanford University’s Institute for Higher Education Research, and the Institute for Educational Leadership. It offers several policy levers for states that are interested in better connecting K-12 and postsecondary education systems in order to create a more fluid K-16 system.

“Particularly now, in the twenty-first century, when more students must complete some postsecondary education to have an economically secure life, the need for improved transitions from high school to college is urgent,” the report reads. “This need for some postsecondary education extends beyond individual aspirations. In this global economy, businesses and communities-and our nation as a whole-must have residents who have achieved educational success beyond high school.”

Today’s high schools are too often “giant sorting machines” that direct some students into college preparation programs but deem that other kids are best suited for less rigorous technical training, which effectively denies access to postsecondary education to many high school graduates. According to the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, the high school graduation rate of the class of 2002 was 71 percent, but only 34 percent of entering ninth graders ultimately left high school with the skills and qualifications necessary for college. Given the disparity between these two numbers, it is not surprising to learn that 63 percent of students in two-year colleges and 38 percent of students in four-year institutions required a year or more of remedial course-taking. In addition, the American Diploma Project reports that students taking remedial courses are 20 percent less likely to earn a bachelor’s degree than their better-prepared peers. Taken as a whole, these facts make it obvious that states must do a better job of aligning high school requirements and postsecondary expectations. But how?

In a study of four states with different K-16 systems (Florida, Georgia, New York, and Oregon), the report identified policy levers that states can use to create change within their education systems. Perhaps first and foremost, states need to “make sure that what students are asked to know and do in high school is connected to postsecondary expectations-both in coursework and assessments,” the report says. For example, in many states, the state exit exam only measures what students learned up until tenth grade. As a result, students are left believing that their tenth-grade assessments and curricular standards are what they need in order to succeed in college.

Secondly, state education finance systems must also become K-16. The report argues that having an education system that can span education systems gives the potential to create incentives and drive change. For example, Georgia allows both K-12 and postsecondary institutions to receive full funding for dual enrollment, a practice where students who are still in high school also take college courses.

Data systems are a must. Without effective data collection, states cannot track students’ progress across systems, assess needs effectively, or evaluate reforms already underway. According to the report, only ten states link their K-12 student records with postsecondary enrollment and only eight states have information about student remediation in postsecondary education.

Florida, by contrast, has connected its data systems for K-12, postsecondary education, workforce training, and even corrections. “Through this work, the Florida Department of Education plans to be able to assess relationships between K-12 programs and postsecondary achievement, and between teacher education programs and student achievement through the K-20 continuum,” the report reads.

The report cautions that problems in one sector cannot be solved without the cooperation of the other: “Our research suggests that creating incentives for systems to work together-whether through finance structures, accountability mechanisms, or other means-appears to be essential.” For example, if a college or university wants to increase minority enrollment or decrease the number of students who require remediation, it must depend on high schools to close achievement gaps and better prepare graduates.

The report is available at http://www.highereducation.org/reports/governance_divide/index.shtml.

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