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Déjà Vu All Over Again: We Can Spot Academic Trouble Early

Maybe I've just been here too long. But once again, I see that old but unsurprising theme cropping up: If we pay attention, we can spot students' academic struggles early on and intervene to help.

The latest echo comes in a report about college, actually. The Colorado Department of Education studied K-12 and higher education data and concluded that students who need remediation in college could have been identified as early as 6th grade, just by looking at their scores on state tests.

A couple of recent laws in Colorado required, among other things, the sharing of data between K-12 and higher ed. That's what facilitated this study. It showed that results of the state tests in grade 10 and the ACT college-admissions exam in grade 11 are pretty clear indicators of the likelihood of remediation in college.

That could give high schools valuable information in addressing students' weaknesses before they leave. (Researchers also found that the ACT's "college ready" cutoff score didn't always match up with placement test scores at Colorado colleges, either; some of the "college ready" students still needed remediation, and some of those not "college ready" on the exam didn't.)

State test data provided some important flashing lights far earlier, as well. Researchers found that more than two-thirds of the students who needed reading remediation in two-year colleges, and nearly half of those who needed it in four-year colleges, scored below proficient on state tests in 6th and 8th grades. This delivers crucial information into the hands of middle schools, who can target help where it's most needed.

If the early warning idea sounds stunningly straightforward and obvious to you, I'm sure you're not alone. But the pileup of studies and early-warning programs (see a couple of examples here and here) still has not gotten the message across with the kind of broad market penetration one might hope for. It's still the few-and-far-between places that are putting these ideas into practice. Of course, assembling the longitudinal data systems needed to see the picture clearly is a big stumbling block, but states are making progress on that front, as the Data Quality Campaign has been telling us.

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