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THE PROMISE OF PROFICIENCY: New Report Focuses on Need for Additional Data in “Year 13,” the First Year After High School

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“Asking schools to deliver postsecondary success without enabling them to measure postsecondary performance is to demand the impossible.”

If high schools are to succeed in their mission to prepare students for college and careers, they must be given the data and management tools to determine how their graduates are doing in “Year 13”—the first year after high school. So says The Promise of Proficiency: How College Proficiency Information Can Help High Schools Drive Student Success, a new report coproduced by the Center for American Progress and College Summit.

“Asking schools to deliver postsecondary success without enabling them to measure postsecondary performance is to demand the impossible,” the report reads. “After all, we wouldn’t ask air traffic controllers to land planes with radars that shut down at 10,000 feet. We wouldn’t let surgeons operate if they could only guess at how previous patients had done. And yet at the moment we are asking high schools to deliver students who can perform in college without giving schools the tools to know whether or how their current efforts are paying off.”

As the report notes, the time when a high school diploma was sufficient to land a well-paying job has passed. Today, the difference in earning power between a high school graduate and someone who finished eighth grade has shrunk to “nil.” On the other hand, college graduates enjoy a tremendous advantage over high school graduates, earning over 74 percent more.

Society also benefits when individuals receive more education after high school. As the report points out, college graduates pay almost $250,000 more in federal taxes over a lifetime than high school graduates and are more likely to vote, volunteer, exercise, and prepare their own children to succeed in school. Even some college is valuable—full-time workers with some college earn about 22 percent more than those with high school diplomas. For these reasons, the report argues, high schools must prepare all students for success after high school.

According to the report, high schools need to understand two things to better prepare students for their first year after high school, or Year 13. First, high schools need to know the college enrollment rate—the rate at which their graduates are enrolled in postsecondary study in the semester after high school graduation. Second, high schools need to know the college proficiency rate—the rate at which their graduates earn at least one year’s worth of college credits, as applicable to a degree, within two years.

The Promise of Proficiency credits the federal government, through the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008, for making publicly available the year-to-year postsecondary education enrollment rate trends of high school students, disaggregated by high school, but the report stresses that high schools also need college proficiency data. Such data—both in the aggregate and for anonymous individual students—would show whether students are still enrolled in college months later and how they are doing academically. By learning how their former graduates are doing in college, high schools can adjust their practices accordingly to better prepare future graduates for postsecondary education. For example, if a high school learns that its graduates are struggling in college math but not in writing, it can promptly take steps to change or improve its math program. The report notes that college proficiency data also provides high schools with valuable information on college graduation and actual college readiness.

Collecting data is not enough. For data to be truly useful, the report reasons that it must be “deployed by educators who trust it, understand it, and use it to launch students in accordance with their mission.” The report cites the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has made investments to ensure that superintendents, principals, counselors, and teachers can identify patterns and devise solutions in response to data, and to College Summit, which has helped to train educators to use data to make strategic decisions.

As noted in the previous Straight A’s article, the federal government, through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), has committed $250 million in grant funding to support states in the further growth and development of their statewide longitudinal data systems.The Promise of Proficiency makes several recommendations on how the federal government can sustain this investment and expand recent progress.

First, it suggests that Congress require states receiving funding under the Statewide Longitudinal Data Systems grant program be held accountable to the Data Quality Campaign’s ten elements and ten actions that are required to make the systems internally complete and linkable to each other. It also recommends that Congress appropriate $25 million for the program in the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008 to make postsecondary data by high school available and useable to all educators. Finally, it asks that Congress reward high schools that demonstrate at least a 10 percent increase in their college proficiency rate over two years.

“Fortunately, the momentum is out there—including within the government—to collect, become comfortable with, and use postsecondary data,” the report reads. “Now the federal government needs to catalyze this progress, putting certain key [ARRA] measures into long-term law and funding the measures already put in place in the Higher Education Opportunity Act.”

The complete report is available at http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/2009/12/pdf/collegesummitreport.pdf.

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