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How Well Are High School Grads Prepared for Postsecondary Experience?

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This post is by Donique Reid, policy and research associate at the Alliance for Excellent Education.

"Most policymakers--and many school administrators--have absolutely no idea what kind of instruction is required to produce students who can think critically and creatively, communicate effectively and collaborate versus merely score well on a test", says Harvard's Tony Wagner. This is beyond evident when I read Achieve's most recent report, in which both college instructors and employers highlight the gross discrepancies in how well students are prepared to succeed in life after high school.

As I peruse through the report findings, I'm perplexed by a glaring inconsistency: All around there is a larger dialogue of growing academic success among the nation's students (mainly the rising high school graduation rate, which has reached an all-time high of 81.4 percent). Yet the evidence is clear that students are even less prepared than they were fewer than 10 years ago.

According to the Achieve report, more than 75 percent of college instructors feel public high schools are not doing a good enough job preparing students for life after high school, up from 65 percent in 2004. Similarly, only about 30 percent of employers believe that public high schools are adequately preparing students to meet the expectations they will encounter at work, down from nearly 50 percent in 2004. How far have we come when more than 80 percent of employers report that public high school graduates are entering the workforce either "not too prepared" or "not at all prepared" for what employers describe as "typical jobs"? And students agree that high school did not prepare them adequately: 75 percent of public high school graduates admit to having either low or moderate expectations in high school. Students characterize a learning experience that does not adequately parallel the demanding nature of jobs and postsecondary education today.

Many of the gaps both college instructors and employers identify are related to the development of deeper learning skills during students' K-12 years. More than 60 percent of college instructors say that about one-half or fewer of their students were prepared to work collaboratively. When asked about critical thinking skills, more than 70 percent of instructors say that fewer than half or none of their students were adequately prepared to think critically. As the demands of the nation's economy shift and become more complex, students are expected to demonstrate an ability to take on new and developing tasks both in college and a career.

However, it is not that students are not working harder to meet the expectations set before them. More students are completing high school than ever before. But with findings of so many unprepared high school graduates, what does an increasing graduation rate indicate?

We know in some cases it means that students are required to demonstrate mastery of college- and career-readiness skills by evidence of the more difficult courses they are required to pass, such as Algebra II. In many cases, though, as in Iowa, Kansas, and California, students are not expected to enroll in more challenging course work and are often allowed to "down grade" into less difficult courses. Although the approaches these states are taking might allow students to move into classes that offer content more suitable for where they are academically, do they enable them to excel on measures of college and career readiness? Just this month, some evidence in a recent Education Trust report points to the lack of rigor on school assignments, especially in high-poverty schools. This, I would say, begs the question: How are our educators being prepared to provide the level of instruction that challenges students to demonstrate deeper learning competencies, despite where they are academically?

California recognized that raising expectations for students without preparing teachers to enable them to meet those expectations would be a challenge. In response, the state eased the expectations, at least temporarily. Students should not have to pay the price for poor instruction and ineffective standards implementation. The good news is that there is promising evidence showing that students are capable of meeting a higher bar when they demonstrate mastery on more challenging tasks. Some states are moving to provide deeper learning instruction in the classrooms, and students are rising to those expectations. The goal then is to move the needle in all states to where educators are focused on what's needed to build deeper learning skills students need for success beyond the classroom.

So, where does policy fit in?

The reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) provides an opportunity for policymakers to encourage deeper learning for all students. In the past, policymakers enacted policies that ultimately created learning environments that promote rote memorization and test-prep structured classrooms. In a recently passed Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA) (the Senate bill for ESEA), the Alliance for Excellent Education worked diligently to shift the focus toward the following guidelines that promote college- and career-readiness instruction for students:

1. Transparency on postsecondary education enrollment and remediation

An amendment passed on the Senate floor will require state report cards to include rates of enrollment in postsecondary education, and remediation rates, for high schools. This level of transparency serves as an incentive for teachers to ensure that students not only graduate from high school, but that they go on to enroll in college and succeed there. If the end goal is to improve students' ability to function in a complex world, schools should provide evidence to communities and families that they are adequately preparing children to do just that.

2. Accountability for college and career readiness

In addition to requiring indicators of students' success after high school, ECAA also allows states to hold schools accountable for preparing students for postsecondary education. To that end, the bill allows states to include indicators of college and career readiness within the state's accountability system, including "measures that integrate preparation for postsecondary education and the workforce, including performance in course work sequences that integrate rigorous academics, work-based learning, and career and technical education."

3. A greater focus on preparing teachers to implement and support deeper learning

As seen in California, simply raising requirements for students without sufficient instructional support aligned with the more complex demands of college and the workforce will not be successful. What seems to be lacking here is a capacity-building strategy that leads to a gradual increase in the performance of students that aligns with higher expectations. ECAA provides support for teachers by encouraging states and districts to fund professional development that "integrate(s) academic and career and technical education content into instruction practices". Highlighting the need to adequately prepare students for a "world knowledge economy," ECAA emphasizes the need to align instruction with what is expected beyond the classroom to decrease the need for remediation and to be career ready upon entering the workforce.

So while the nation's overall high school graduation rate continues to improve, it's evident that these graduates are not fully prepared for success in college and/or a career. Employers and college instructors are clear about the importance of students developing deeper learning competencies they will need to be successful beyond high school. As states begin to raise graduation requirements and increase the rigor of assessments, there needs to be transparency on postsecondary education enrollment and remediation, accountability for college and career readiness, and more emphasis on preparing teachers to implement and support deeper learning skills. With these policy guidelines, we can ensure that students are not simply graduating, but also leaving with a demonstrated ability to excel beyond the high school classroom. 

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