Six years ago, states were forced to acknowledge and confront an unfortunate truth: too many students were graduating from high school without the knowledge and skills required to successfully compete in either college or the workplace. Achieve, a bipartisan, nonprofit education reform association, dubbed the problem an “expectations gap” and challenged national and state leaders to adopt and implement college- and career-ready policies for all high school graduates. Since then, the group has conducted annual surveys of each state and the District of Columbia, monitoring their progress in aligning standards, graduation requirements, assessments and accountability with the expectations of postsecondary institutions and employers.
The 2011 Closing the Expectations Gap report shows that, although states still have work to do, there is a concerted effort to ensure that every high school graduate is adequately prepared for work or college.
Sandy Boyd, Achieve’s vice president for strategic communications and outreach, says an emphasis on college or workplace readiness is “the new norm” across the nation.
“States, individually and collectively, have been working on this agenda pretty diligently for the last five years. I think there’s very much a sense that we’re at a potentially transformational moment,” she says. “With the widespread adoption of the common core and with so many states working together on common assessments and on tools to actually make sure that the standards are implemented and find their way in classrooms, there’s a real opportunity to transform the system in a way that we just haven’t been able to accomplish on a broad scale.”
Currently, 47 states and the District of Columbia have developed and adopted English and math standards that are aligned with college- and career-ready expectations. Of those states, 44 and the District have adopted the K-12 Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in math and English.
“The CCSS offer an unprecedented opportunity for states across the nation to improve upon their education policies and practices and achieve systemwide reform,” the report states. In addition, it says that many states’ efforts have been bolstered by Race to the Top Awards.
Nebraska, Texas and Virginia have adopted their own state-developed standards in those areas. Montana and North Dakota will decide this year whether they will align their state standards to the CCSS, and Alaska has begun conducting a review of how its standards compare to college- and career-ready expectations.
Twenty states and the District now require students to complete a college- and career-ready curriculum to graduate, which the report says is one of the best ways to ensure that the standard positively impacts every high school student. Florida and Utah were the only states to adopt the requirement in 2010. According to the report, the number has stalled at 21 for the past two years, as each state that added the requirement was offset by another state that changed or re-evaluated its graduation requirements policy. Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York and Washington, however, are considering making their graduation requirements even more rigorous.
“There seems to be a real embrace of the goal of college- and career-readiness for all students across the board, even if states choose to get there in different ways,” says Boyd.
According to the report, high school assessment testing has typically measured knowledge and skills gained in middle school or early high school, meaning they cannot properly gauge whether students are prepared for work or college. Progress in this area has been slow, with just 14 states administering assessments that post-secondary institutions use to determine students’ college readiness.
” The number of states administering college- and career-ready assessments is likely, however, to increase over the next several years as several individual states have new tests that are in development or being reviewed for postsecondary use,” says the report. In addition, the U.S. Department of Education has awarded $330 million to two consortia covering 45 states and the District to develop assessment systems aligned to the CCSS.
Stan Jones, president of Complete College America, says the assessment component is key, because simply taking the courses won’t determine whether students are ready for college.
“The real measure of the success of this effort is whether students are ready to start college in credit-bearing courses and not require remediation,” he says. “Right now, 60 percent of all the high school students that go to community colleges start in remedial classes, and about 25 to 30 percent at a lot of the four-year, open admission colleges start in remedial classes. The national average is 40 percent, all told, so the real test is whether students can start college without being in remediation.”
Accountability is another area that has yielded disappointing results. In fact, Texas is the only state that met with what Achieve identifies as the minimum criteria to adequately measure and provide incentives for college and career readiness. The report does, however, describe “emerging best practices in accountability” taking place in six states.
According to Boyd, state and other policy leaders have found the report’s information useful to gauge their progress and to compare and contrast their progress with other states. In addition, she says, it will be useful as federal lawmakers consider reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
“There are certainly things the federal government can learn,” says Boyd. “I think almost certainly that Congress will be paying close attention to what the leading states are doing and will want to encourage [best practices] and make sure that the reauthorization supports [their work].”
Jones predicts that it will be four or five years before education leaders and advocates see real results. Looking forward, he says he would like to see “more attention paid to teaching and learning.”
“The next step is putting standards and assessments in place that work more with teachers on how to teach the standards more effectively,” says Jones.