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Duncan Calls on High Schools to Increase Rigor, Reduce Need for Remediation

The mission of high schools can no longer be to simply get students to graduate. Their expanded mission must be to ready students for careers and college—without the need for remediation.

That was the message U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan delivered today to the AP College Board's Annual Conference in Washington. "High schools must shift from being last-stop destinations for students on their education journey to being launching pads for further growth and lifelong learning," Duncan said, according to his prepared remarks provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

He suggested that three widely-shared myths are impeding the transformation of high schools:

Myth 1: Setting higher standards and expectations for students will only lead more students to fail, driving up the dropout rate;

Myth 2: By high school, it's too late to get lagging students on track for college. In the face of poverty, schools cannot make that much of a difference;

Myth 3: College- and career-readiness is too elusive to evaluate meaningfully with assessments or to track long-term.

Duncan told the audience that its work to expand Advanced Placement is a powerful rebuttal to those myths. "All of you are showing that success can spread when standards are raised, not dummied down. You are showing that demography is not destiny. You are showing that good assessments and data are a blessing in the classroom and not a burden," said Duncan.

To transform the nation's high schools, Duncan said traditions would have to be challenged. While parents and students rank preparing for college as the most important purpose of high schools, many teachers and principals do not. Duncan noted that numerous states still have laws that make it hard for students to graduate early or bar students from demonstrating they are ready to enroll in college because they lack the right amount of seat-time in prescribed classes.

Part of the problem is that principals have little idea of and no accountability for what happens to students after they graduate, and college counselors are a neglected resource in high schools, Duncan said.

Still, Duncan said he was optimistic that high schools are beginning to change. He applauded the initiative to develop common core standards, and the explosion of enrollment in AP and dual-credit courses. He highlighted how participation and performance in AP course was up substantially for African-American, Latino, and Native American students during the last decade. Still, Duncan urged AP educators and principals to further increase participation by minorities and low-income students.

"To meet the challenges of the information age, high schools need to become more rigorous to foster college- and career-readiness, and provide multiple pathways to success," said Duncan. "They cannot just maintain the status quo."

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