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High Schools Under More Pressure to Report College Data

Everybody wants to know your college business. That's the message high schools are increasingly hearing.

It used to be that no one even knew their local high schools' graduation rates, let alone how many kids they sent to college and how those kids fared once they got there. Now graduation rates are a standard part of the stuff by which states are judged under No Child Left Behind. And the bar could be getting higher.

The latest evidence rolled out this week, in a panel discussion hosted jointly by the Data Quality Campaign and College Summit, and in a report issued by Jobs For the Future. My colleague Caralee Adams has the skinny for you in her story about the DQC/College Summit panel, and her blog post about the JFF report. But the bottom line here is that pressure is building for states to track how many of their districts' and schools' students enroll in college, how many need remediation, and how well they stack up credits.

In a white paper that served as a backdrop to the panel discussion, the Data Quality Campaign and College Summit urge states to build up their data muscle so they can provide information that loops backward to help K-12 do a better job of getting kids ready for college. (Forty-one states are able to do this, according to the DQC, but only 23 have done it.) In its report, Jobs For the Future joins College Summit and the DQC in asking that states not only track postsecondary information and make it public, but include it in their accountability systems.

These voices step into an ongoing whirl of discussion about linking K-12 and higher education data.

A year and a half ago, when the Obama administration released its "blueprint" for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, it called for states to design accountability systems that report not just high schools' graduation rates, but their rates of college enrollment and remediation. (See the "college and career ready" section of the blueprint.)

More recently, the administration's NCLB waiver process, which our Politics K-12 team has been covering for you, would require states that want relief from key provisions of that law to report their college-going and credit-accumulation rates. They would have to do this for all students as well as for subgroups, at the district and the school levels (which will be a huge "ouch" in thousands of schools. But I digress...).

There are some big questions in all this, to be sure, not the least of which is how to define "college readiness." Keep in mind that assessments being designed for the common standards by two big groups of states are intended to measure college readiness. States that link K-12 and college data could interpret that feedback as a gauge of college readiness, too. But that picture isn't complete, because it typically excludes information on students who enroll in private colleges and universities.

And none of it—the tests or the data-feedback loops—helps us too much in sorting out the debate about whether students need the same skills for community college as they do for broad-access four-year colleges. If the assessments have just one cut score connoting college readiness, for instance, either we haven't answered the "ready for what kind of college?" question, or we have accepted the premise that the skills needed for entry-level, credit-bearing work in community colleges are the same as those needed for broad-access four-year colleges. If data-feedback loops don't distinguish between those two types of colleges, then we don't know a whole lot more how to distinguish good preparation for one type of institution from good preparation for the other, or—once again—we've accepted the premise that they should be prepared similarly for both.

Another question revolves around carrots and sticks. As the New Age Accountability replaces the federal-level NCLB-type sanctions with state-level incentives for good performance, more faith is funneled into the power of publicity—reporting results—because the fear of federal sanctions diminishes. The role that incentives will play in states' willingness to report, and act on, their data is still taking shape.

No Child Left Behind turned the spotlight on high schools by making them report their graduation rates. And new regulations a few years ago tightened up those rules by making them all use the same, tougher method of calculating grad rates. In the post-NCLB era, it seems, they are going to have to report even more of their stuff: this time, their postsecondary business. What they are required to report, what they choose to report, and how they respond to the data, will be worth monitoring.

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