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Embedding College Readiness Indicators in High School Curriculum and Assessments

By — Educational Resource Information Center (U.S. Department of Education)
Updated on Dec 16, 2008

A growing number of studies are suggesting that all students will need to complete some postsecondary education -- be it technical certification, an associate's degree, a bachelor's degree or beyond -- to be prepared for the vast majority of the jobs of the 21st century. To help ensure that students are prepared for college-level work, a number of states embed college readiness indicators in curriculum and assessments. This policy brief presents how several states have implemented this practice -- often through legislation --at the local, state and district levels. A curriculum embedded with college readiness indicators may consist of courses that are aligned with college admissions requirements, which are generally more challenging than the state- or district-mandated high school graduation requirements. Assessments with indicators may be either college placement exams such as the ACT or SAT, the pre- ACT tests (EXPLORE and PLAN), or items from state tests calibrated with the SAT, ACT or state college entrance expectations.

The influence of coursework

Research such as Cliff Adelman's 2006 The Toolbox Revisited, a follow-up to his 1999 Answers in the Toolbox, found that completing a challenging high school curriculum was the greatest precollegiate indicator of bachelor's degree completion, and the impact was even greater for black and Hispanic students than white students. Adelman specifies in the 2006 report, At the highest level of a 31-level scale describing this academic intensity one finds students who, through grade 12 in 1992, had accumulated:

  • At least 3.75 units (years) of English and math, with the highest level of math reaching either calculus, precalculus or trigonometry
  • At least 2.5 units of science or more than 2 units of core lab science (biology, chemistry and physics)
  • More than 2 units of foreign languages and history/social sciences
  • 1 or more units of computer science
  • More than one Advanced Placement (AP) course
  • No remedial English or math.

In fact, Adelman found that these were minimums. [S]tudents who reached this level of academic curriculum intensity accumulated much more than these threshold criteria, and 95% of these students earned bachelor's degrees (41% also earned master's, first professional or doctoral degrees) by December 2000. However, Adelman likewise discovered that this curriculum was not always available -- Latino and low-income students, for example, are significantly less likely than their Asian or white counterparts to attend high schools offering trigonometry or above.1

The influence of assessments College entrance tests have typically been aimed at students whose families expect they will complete a bachelor's degree. Youth who score well on college placement-level assessments, however, are not always those who consider themselves college material. Their strong performance can serve as an incentive to reconsider their post-high school plans. College-level assessments can also serve as an indicator of whether students are on track for entry-level college courses while there's still time in high school to hone knowledge and skills.

Some states may have assessments that can serve as college-readiness indicators even if that was not the original intent. Connecticut, for example, has not explicitly established assessments to determine students' readiness for college; however, one recent study has shown that the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) is an excellent predictor of students' college readiness and success. First Steps: An Evaluation of the Success of Connecticut Students Beyond High School reports the findings of a study that followed the entire cohort of sophomores taking the CAPT in 1996 through their first five years after high school, to 2003. The researchers evaluated (1) the effectiveness of high school testing in predicting students' later success; (2) choices Connecticut students made in attending college; and (3) the potential state policy implications. The researchers examined seven indicators of future college enrollment and success: (1) interest in college, (2) time elapsed before starting college, (3) number of remediation courses in college, (4) credits taken per semester, (5) number of courses taken and passed per semester, (6) college GPA, and (7) whether or not a student completed a college degree. Both the SAT and CAPT were found to be effective -- yet independent -- predictors of college readiness and success, with the CAPT accurately predicting all seven indicators.2

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