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MISSION NOT YET ACCOMPLISHED: Achieve and Ed Trust Seek to Make College- and Work-Readiness the Goal for High Schools

“There is a lot of work for states to align standards, assessments, and accountability with the demands of life after high school,” noted Ross Wiener, vice president of The Education Trust.

To help close the gap between what is expected of a high school graduate and what the postsecondary world demands, state leaders must develop policies to equate earning a diploma with college- and work-readiness. This is the theme of a new report, Making College and Career Readiness the Mission for High Schools: A Guide for State Policymakers, that was co-written by education nonprofits Achieve and The Education Trust as part of Measures That Matter, a project that helps guide state decisionmakers in crafting policies with college- and work-readiness at their core.

“The time has come to rethink not only what we expect of our students but also what we ask of our high schools and the leaders who are responsible for them,” said Matt Gandal, executive vice president of Achieve.

The report argues that the global nature of today’s economy dictates that all students have a high level of preparation—regardless of their ultimate goals—if they are to meet the demands of family- supporting jobs—many of which require postsecondary education. Additionally, the challenges of financial decisions and even everyday citizenship mean that workers will need to know more and be able to apply that knowledge to succeed both in and outside of the workplace.

“The old dichotomies of ‘college bound’ and ‘work bound’ no longer apply,” the report reads. “Academic proficiency alone is insufficient; so is focusing on giving students narrow skills needed for certain jobs. Students need to know more, they need to be better equipped to apply that knowledge, and they must be prepared to tackle increasingly complex issues and problems.”

To help students meet these challenges, the report makes five recommendations for state policymakers: align high school standards with the demands of college and careers, ensure that all students enroll in a college- and career-ready course of study, provide high-quality curriculum and teacher-support materials, build better assessments to measure student learning, and establish information and accountability systems that value and reward college- and career-readiness.

Acknowledging that aligning standards with college and career demands is a challenging process, the report emphasizes that it is necessary to ensure that all students are prepared for postsecondary education and work. It calls on state policymakers to involve their two- and four-year colleges in helping to determine what baseline knowledge and skills incoming freshmen need to begin college without remediation. It also suggests that policymakers go through a similar process with employers, and that they make sure that the standards ultimately guide instruction in the earlier grades, as well.

The report also recommends that all students take a college- and work-ready curriculum. It notes that although many states have requirements for a diploma (e.g., four years of English, three of math, etc.), a student can take the requisite number of courses in each area and still not be college- and work-ready, particularly if the courses are not challenging. Instead, Achieve and The Education Trust say that high school students should take math through Algebra II and four years of rigorous English as part of a well-rounded curriculum that includes classes in science, the arts, social studies, and foreign languages.

States have made progress in this area, according to the report. Three years ago, for example, only Texas and Arkansas required students to complete a college- and work-ready curriculum, which included four years of rigorous English and a math course beyond Algebra II, for a diploma. Today, however, eighteen other states and the District of Columbia have such requirements. Further, through its American Diploma Project, Achieve has worked with twenty-eight states to help them align their standards.

State leaders must make sure that courses are rigorous not only in name, but also in content. Inconsistency is widespread, and as the report points out, an Algebra I course taught in one school can be much more or much less challenging than one taught in another. It calls for policymakers to provide more leadership regarding curricula and instructional supports.

Because current state tests fail to adequately measure college- and work-readiness, the report also suggests that states develop better high school assessments. It cites a National Center for Education Statistics report that found that 40 percent of students who take placement tests at the beginning of college are told they are not ready for college work, even though they likely passed their state tests in high school.

The report also finds that the establishment of meaningful assessments could help postsecondary schools and employers link incentives to strong results. It cites examples such as California, where the state university waives the placement test requirement for students who score at college-ready levels on the statewide eleventh-grade exam, and New York, where the state university uses Regents exam results for admissions and placement decisions.

The report concludes that states are at all different stages of implementing and mandating a college- and work-readiness curriculum, but stresses that even the furthest-along states are “at best, only halfway to the goal of a truly aligned system.”

“There is a lot of work for states to align standards, assessments, and accountability with the demands of life after high school,” noted Ross Wiener, vice president of The Education Trust. “But these changes alone won’t be enough to get everyone pulling in the same direction. The next generation of state policy needs to give teachers and students meaningful goals to aim for, and needs to provide more useful information and stronger curriculum and instructional support to help them succeed.”

To download the full report, visit

More information on Measures That Matter can be found at

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