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Report Finds Higher Education Slow to Adapt to Common Core

UPDATED

A Washington-based think tank contends that higher education is falling far short in adapting to the Common Core State Standards, saying the sector needs to take significant steps to shift its policies and practices, including actions that show a commitment to use the results from the forthcoming common-core assessments in admissions, financial aid, and placement decisions. 

The New America Foundation released a policy brief July 22 on how higher education institutions are responding to the new standards, concluding that its analysis finds "a higher education landscape riddled with complications and shortcomings for the successful alignment of higher education with common core."

"An examination of the higher education policies that guide students through the transition from high school to college ... reveals many detours and inconsistencies that remain unaddressed," the report says.

The new analysis comes as just last month, higher education leaders formed a coalition in support of the common core.

But Lindsey Tepe, the report's author, said in a phone interview that colleges have not responded with meaningful action to embrace the standards as indicators of college and career readiness. For instance, many colleges rely on ACCUPLACER and the ACT COMPASS tests for placement and set minimum scores on the SAT and ACT for admissions or financial aid awards, while there is little talk yet of adding cut scores to the mix from the forthcoming common-core assessments for 11th graders, according to the Tepe.

"In effect what they are saying is college and career readiness at their university is best judged by these other tools and not the standards that they are advocating their K-12 colleagues use," she said.

Coordinating Curriculum

Without alignment to the common core, there is a disconnect between the focus of efforts in high school and expectations in college, said Tepe, who argues that more needs to be done to coordinate K-12 and postsecondary curriculum to avoid an additional layer of placement testing.

"That's alarming if you don't think these standards are really preparing students for your first-year, credit-bearing courses and your developmental education needs to teach different standards to make sure students are prepared," she said.

Tepe suggests the two testing consortia, Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), need to do more to get administrators, decision makers, and policymakers at colleges involved.

While the new college- and career- readiness scores that students will receive in high school would be a logical tool for colleges to use in reviewing prospective students' applications or preparedness for credit-bearing classes, the paper finds few instances where policies are being modified to embrace the new assessments.

 "There is little to no pressure on colleges and universities to change their own practices to align with or incorporate these new standards," writes Tepe, a program associate with the Washington-based research organization.

If the results of the first  11th grade assessments in 2014-15 and created by the two testing consortia are going to have an impact on student achievement, the report suggests both secondary and postsecondary education should work in tandem to modify policies.

On the high school side, states need to develop a definition of what It means for students to be "college ready," and adopt graduation requirements to reflect that standard, the report recommends. The secondary level should also review high school exit exam requirements and consider curriculum to help bridge the transition from high school to college, according to the New America report.

For higher education, colleges that use ACT and SAT scores as a minimum threshold for admission should add the common-core assessment scores as an additional opportunity to demonstrate readiness, suggests Tepe.

She acknowledges that some colleges are reluctant to embrace the common-core assessments because they are still being piloted and are not established exams. Still, research shows a students' GPA is a better indicator of college success than either the SAT or ACT and the new assessments will be more closely aligned with what students are learning in the classroom, she said.

"When higher education is ignoring what students are actually doing in the classroom, it sends a really strong signal to students that if colleges don't take this it seriously, why should we?" said Tepe.

Validity of Scores

Some colleges will want to wait to see the validity of the scores after students complete first-year courses before adopting new policies, said Jacqueline King, the director of higher education collaboration for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, in a phone interview. "In some cases, it's just too early. Higher ed can't make decisions until they see the cut scores," she said.

This fall, educators from K-12 and colleges will have an opportunity to give feedback on just what those readiness benchmarks should be on the new 11th grade assessments being developed by Smarter Balanced, King said. In October, Smarter Balanced will host a workshop for 500 educators to give input on the achievement level setting, she noted. In September, there will be a chance for up to 250,000 people to go online and review the achievement level process and make a recommendation for cut scores.

If colleges use the cut scores in admissions and placement decisions, King said it will convey a consistent message about expectations.

"It gives everybody a clear notion of the goal line and what they need to do to be ready for credit-level bearing courses," she said.

In a follow-up email, King emphasized that it's still too early to render a judgment on higher education's response to the standards and the forthcoming assessments, given that states are still working on implementation and some key decisions are still to come.

Tepe maintains that the transition to the common core reflects one of the largest changes to K-12 education that has happened in the last 40 years and it's a compelling enough change that higher education officials should respond.

"It's taking people longer than it should to take notice," she said.

Tepe's paper also suggests higher education institutions need to modify teacher-preparation programs in light of the new standards for math and English/language arts and work with high schools to help struggling senior years prepare for college-level work before graduation.

At the same time, the report does highlight some promising examples of greater collaboration between the K-12 and higher education sectors, including the work of Rockefeller Philanthropy's Core to College project and the College Readiness Partnership initiated by the Council of Chief State School Officers. as models for promoting greater collaboration between K-12 and higher ed sectors.

[UPDATE: 12:25 p.m.]

Since the report was made public, I've received additional feedback from the field, including from William Kirwan, the chancellor and CEO of the University System of Maryland, and Michelle Cooper, the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

This is a very critical moment for higher education to get much more engaged in the implementation of the common core, Kirwan told me in a phone interview. "I recognize that this has not occurred at the pace I feel it should have," he said.

According to Kirwan, part of the problem is that the two testing consortia "missed the boat" by excluding higher education from the leadership in the development of the assessments. While both consortia developed advisory committees of higher education leaders, colleges in PARCC were not brought in as full partners, he contends.

"I still think that higher education needs to get more engaged in this effort because it's the last, best hope we have to close the gap between high school completion and college readiness expectations," said Kirwan.

Maryland institutions are ready to accept the new common-core assessments to determine if students need developmental courses once there is data to verify the new tests are reliable.

"We are committed to moving in that direction, but we want to make sure the assessments are giving correct information to place students into credit-bearing courses," he said.

Michelle Cooper, of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a research and policy group in Washington, said higher education and K-12 are running on parallel tracks and the report is a fair criticism of the issue.

 "Colleges know the common core. They have just made the choice to ignore it or overlook it," she said. Some in higher education say colleges are focused on their own initiatives to improve quality. Others defend colleges saying they need to be incentivized to respond appropriately, but Cooper dismisses that excuse.

"There are some states that are already working to align higher ed and K-12 so it shows it can be done," said Cooper.  No one should be telling higher education institutions they need to comply with the common core, she said, arguing that they should want to do that and work with K-12 to improve the quality of education.

 "Whether higher education approves of the common core or not, it is unwise to ignore these conversations or ignore this reform movement," said Cooper.

She suggests that more higher education leaders need to be invited to the table with K-12 as they set new policies and work to implement the new standards.

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