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The Challenge of Aligning K-12 With College

I've been thinking a lot lately about the big schism between what schools think students need to master to do well in college and what they actually need to master. It's been a blend of professional and personal thinking, as I work on a story about K-12 and college alignment in California, and support my youngest daughter, a high school senior, as she sorts through her thinking about college.

In my daughter's case, I'm confident she has been well prepared for college. She's lucky to have been able to choose tough classes at a good public school. I had the opposite experience; I attended a weak public school that told me, with my high grades, that I was fully prepared for the next step. But college was an ice-water bath; high school had not prepared me at all for the level of rigor demanded there, and I had to push hard to keep up.

I know from my years writing about education that I have a lot of company. Far too many schools offer students a watered-down education, setting the teenagers up for quite a shock when they get to college. Huge proportions—even those who got good grades in high school—end up in remedial classes, wasting good time and money and increasing the odds they will drop out without college degrees.

So I'm interested when edu-wonks talk about aligning the K-12 system to the expectations of college. That's part of what drew me to the story about California's Early Assessment Program, which has become something of a role model in the K-12/college-alignment crowd. (I also wrote about Texas' work to reshape its precollegiate education around college expectations.) Stay tuned for my story about California's EAP; I'll post a link here when it comes out. (UPDATE: here's a link.) But there is a lot in that program that provides grist for conversation as policymakers try to help more students get into the college pipeline and end up with degrees.

In a nutshell, this is the program: It tests 11th graders' readiness for college, using items designed jointly by K-12 and one of the state's public university systems. It offers catch-up options for seniors who haven't met the mark and professional development for teachers to help them teach to these college-level expectations. It's an understatement to say that the coherence of that approach is rare. Just creating a system with all these elements, infused with higher ed expectations, is a huge accomplishment. And some of the coursework created for seniors—especially an expository reading and writing course designed by K-12 and university faculty—gets glowing reviews from both students and teachers. Teachers rave about the professional development in literacy, too.

But (you knew there was a "but" coming, didn't you?) a system this big is bound to be hard to implement, especially in a huge state with huge financial challenges and tons of socioeconomic diversity. So despite its vision, and its accomplishments, the EAP comes in for its share of criticism, too: Students don't understand or act on their EAP results, so the early-warning aspect is weak, critics say. The courses designed to help them aren't available enough, or—in the case of math—good enough. The professional development hasn't reached enough teachers, they say. They note that after six years, the program hasn't made much of a dent in college remediation rates. Some even ask why we need a test to tell us something needs to be done for thousands of kids in high school; better to spend scarce resources bolstering high school teaching and supporting the students that need it the most, these folks say.

Whatever your take on the Early Assessment Program—or any attempt to align K-12 to college expectations—it certainly sparks valuable conversation that can bring about change. Even without a formal 11th grade test, you have to believe that schools, with the right kind of focus, can figure out which students aren't up to snuff, and can do it far earlier than 11th grade. Some might say we don't need a fancy, official constellation of programs to solve this problem; all we need to do is have good, skilled people working together through the K-12 system to help kids wherever they are.

Without that, there will continue to be a long line of kids that find their freshman year of college—if they make it that far—to be a potentially life-changing setback.

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