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Efforts Ramp Up to Smooth Transition From High School to College

With the national cost of remedial education in college topping $7 billion a year, educators and policymakers are getting creative about how to better prepare high school students for the demands of college.

High schools are increasingly assessing students by their junior year to see if they are college-ready and offering courses specifically designed for those who need help getting up to speed before graduation. In a new Education Week story, I take a closer look at this development.

Researchers at the Community College Research Center at Teacher College, Columbia University have studied this trend and released a report last year that chronicled the increase in early assessment and transition curricula offered by states and local districts. This fall, the Southern Regional Education Board began piloting new English and math "readiness" courses to equip high school student who fail to meet college-readiness benchmarks with the skills they need to avoid remedial courses in college.

Aligning Courses in South Carolina

Throughout the country, states are trying various approaches be sure students can successfully transition to college and career.

In South Carolina, high school teachers and college professors are working together so that exit-level high school courses better feed into entry-level college courses as part of the South Carolina Course Alignment Project. With the "paired courses model," educators from both sectors meet regularly to share instructional strategies and discuss ways to help improve the transition for students. As a result of their interaction, for example, high school teachers are ramping up their expectations and college professors are adding more assignments to give students feedback sooner.

Through the project, John Kinard, a physics teacher at Greenwood High School for 35 years in Greenwood, S.C., got to know his counterparts at the nearby college and invited them to speak to his class of seniors about the rigor of college.

"It sort of opens [the students'] eyes and makes them realize, 'This is going to be different next year. I'm going to have be organized and work,'" he said.

David Conley, the director of the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon, and who worked on the South Carolina project, said these conversations between the sectors is what's needed to help students better prepare for college.

However, Conley cautions that it's not enough to just align courses between high school and college if the courses aren't good in the first place. 

"Some sort of external quality control in the form of an audit or review is a necessary component to ensure that the aligned courses are appropriately challenging,"he said.

In other states, such as New Mexico, the issue has only recently surfaced on the radar of policymakers.

study released last month found that 51 percent of that state's high school graduates who went to the state's colleges and universities needed remedial courses last year, costing the state $22 million. These findings spurred lawmakers to discuss moving more remedial instruction into the high schools and increasing funding for early-childhood programs.

California was one of the first to bridge the college readiness divide with its Early Assessment Program in 2004. Although voluntary, 88 percent of the state's 11th graders take the English exam and 84 percent participate in the math test to see if they are college ready, said Nancy Brynelson, the co-director of the Center for the Advancement of Readiness at California State University that administers the program.

Participating in EAP reduced the average student's probability of needing remediation at CSU by 6.1 percentage points in English and 4.1 percentage points in English, according at a 2010 study.

To help better prepare students who were identified as lagging, high school teachers and higher education faculty worked together to develop a transition English course that aligned to college expectations.

Of the nearly 56,000 students in the incoming CSU class in the fall of 2012, some 66 percent were identified as proficient in English, up from 55 percent in 2006 and nearly 70 percent were identified as proficient in math, an increase from 63 percent in the same period, according to Brynelson.

Many policymakers contend that early assessments, transitional courses, and joint professional development are all needed to move the needle on college completion.

"You have to make fundamental shifts to get students ready for college," Brynelson said.

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