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

How States Embed College Readiness Indicators in the High School Curriculum

While labeling a course English IV or Algebra II does not unequivocally ensure the curriculum will prepare high school students for college-level coursework, requiring students to complete a curriculum aligned with college admissions requirements is a step in the right direction.

No state currently requires all students to complete a high school curriculum aligned with state-set college admission requirements, although some states provide an optional aligned curriculum, and a few others -- Indiana, Oklahoma and South Dakota -- will make an aligned curriculum mandatory for all students in future graduating classes. The April 2006 ECS StateNote Alignment of High School Graduation Requirements with College Admissions Requirements provides 50-state information on the level of alignment in English, math, science, social studies and foreign language requirements for high school graduation and statewide college admission requirements -- both for standard diplomas and honors/college prep diplomas or endorsements that offer such options.

A handful of states have efforts underway to align not only the numbers and types of courses required for high school graduation and college admission, but specific curriculum standards in high school courses. These standards incorporate the skills and knowledge students need to succeed -- to avoid remediation -- in entry-level college courses. In 2005, Minnesota enacted legislation (H.F. 141, section 82) requiring the state's higher education advisory council to convene a working group to define the skills and knowledge a student needs when entering postsecondary education. These standards are currently being developed by the state's P-16 College and Work Readiness Working Group, one of six working groups of the Minnesota P-16 Education Partnership. In designing the standards, the partnership is utilizing a variety of sources, including the American Diploma Project, the state language arts and math standards, the Minnesota State University Preparation Competencies (endorsed by the University of Minnesota) and the joint mathematics competencies (created by representatives from the University of Minnesota, Minnesota State Colleges and Universities, and the Minnesota Private College Council).

To date, working group subcommittees have developed draft standards in reading, writing and math, which were submitted to Minnesota Department of Education Commissioner Alice Seagren on March 13, 2006. The standards are expected to be fully developed by the end of 2006. The 2005 legislation requires the commissioner of education to report to the legislature's education committees the recommended changes, if any, that must be made to the state standards to ensure that high school graduates attain the higher education advisory council's college readiness standards.3

Iowa legislation (S.F. 245) calls on the state board to develop a model core curriculum and set a goal of 80% of high school graduates in the state completing the core curriculum by July 2009. (The state currently does not have comprehensive high school graduation requirements.) The legislation additionally requires each 8th grader, beginning in the 2006-07 school year, to have a core curriculum plan to guide the student toward the goal of completing the model core curriculum; and to annually report to the student and his/her parent the student's progress toward completing the model core curriculum. The department of education has convened a project lead team and work teams in the areas of literacy, science and math to design the model core curriculum. Recommendations on the model core curriculum will be presented at the state board's May 2006 meeting.

In addition, the American Diploma Project (ADP), housed within Achieve, Inc., is assisting 22 states in their efforts to develop and implement action plans to better align high school exit requirements and postsecondary/workforce entrance expectations. As of April 2006, 17 state plans were posted to the Achieve Web site.

How States Are Embedding College Readiness Indicators in High School Assessments

While parents and students may assume that scoring well on a standard high school assessment indicates a student is ready for college-level coursework, recent research points to the contrary. Mixed Messages: What State High School Tests Communicate About Student Readiness for College, by David Conley, director of the Standards for Success program at the University of Oregon, is a first-of-its-kind study examining the extent of alignment between high school assessments and the knowledge and skills needed for success in entry-level postsecondary courses. Researchers analyzed 35 state exams in English language arts and 31 in mathematics for: matches in categories of knowledge/skills tested in each subject area, depth of knowledge, range of knowledge and balance of representation. The assessments were sorted into one of three levels based on the degree of alignment with college entrance expectations. The findings: in math, no state's tests received an overall A for a high degree of alignment, and only three received this score in English.

In Do Graduation Tests Measure Up? A Closer Look at State High School Exit Exams, researchers from Achieve, Inc. analyzed exit exams in English and math in six states -- Florida, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Ohio and Texas. The study examined the content the tests assess and the grade level of that content; the complexity of each question and of the items altogether; how well the exit tests measure what matters most to postsecondary education institutions and to employers in high-growth, high- performance industries; and what it takes for students to pass each state test and how those expectations compare across states. The evaluation concluded that the level of English and math tested is generally low compared to international standards -- the majority of reading questions were at international 8th- and 9th-grade levels and math questions were at 7th- or 8th-grade levels. None of the tests adequately measures the full range of college- and work-readiness benchmarks identified through the American Diploma Project.

States are currently taking one of the following approaches in attempts to align high school assessments with college-readiness indicators: 1) Aligning stand-alone voluntary assessments with college placement exams 2) Administering state assessments with embedded/aligned college-ready items 3) Providing opportunities for high school students to take college placement exams 4) Requiring all students to take the ACT or SAT 5) Providing opportunities for 11th graders to take the PSAT 6) Providing opportunities for middle and high school students to take the EPAS (Educational Planning and Assessment System, comprised of the pre-ACT EXPLORE and PLAN assessments, and the ACT).

Aligning stand-alone voluntary assessments with college placement exams

Concerned with the number of college freshmen who need remedial English and math before going onto credit-bearing postsecondary coursework, California and Kentucky have developed high school assessments to determine students' readiness for college while there's still time to identify deficiencies and build essential skills before high school graduation.

California's Early Assessment Program -- piloted during the 2003-04 school year and first available to high school juniors statewide in spring 2004 -- is a voluntary supplement to the grade 11 mandatory California Standards Tests. Students can elect to take the exam in English language arts (reading and writing) and math. Students who score high enough on the math assessment are exempt from taking California State University's entry-level mathematics exam (lower-scoring students are partially-exempt or not exempt) and students scoring well on the language arts assessment may also be exempt from the CSU English placement exams. The CSU system maintains a Web site, http://www.csumathsuccess.org/mshome, which provides students and high school teachers with diagnostic assessments and online instructional resources to help students meet CSU's placement benchmarks. The Early Assessment Program is a joint effort of the California Department of Education, the state board of education and California State University, which has set a goal of reducing remediation rates of incoming freshmen to 10% by fall 2007.4

Kentucky's Early Mathematics Testing Program is a collaborative effort of the University of Kentucky, Northern Kentucky University and the Kentucky Council on Postsecondary Education that was first available in spring 2001. The program offers voluntary online math tests to high school sophomores and juniors. The exams are aligned with placement tests at state community and technical colleges and four- year public universities, and can be taken either at school or at home. Students can select up to three participating postsecondary institutions they are considering attending. The program generates students' scores as well as the following information for each institution: 1) A list of math courses required for the student's intended major 2) A list of any remedial courses the student might need to take based on the student's math skills as demonstrated on the test 3) The estimated cost of the remedial courses the student might need 4) The high school courses and specific math concepts or functions the student should study to target deficiencies. (KY REV. STAT. ANN. 158.803)

Administering state assessments with embedded/aligned college-ready items

The Texas Success Initiative (TSI), adopted by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in December 2003, requires postsecondary institutions in the state to assess the academic skills of each entering undergraduate prior to the student's enrollment. The state recognizes students as college-ready who:

  • Achieve standard scores on traditional college placement tests such as the ACT, ASSET and COMPASS
  • Achieve standard scores on the College Board's ACCUPLACER and the Texas Higher Education Assessment (THEA)
  • Exceed a set standard on the reading, writing and math portions of the grade 11 Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) exit exam.

Scores are valid for a period of three years from the date of testing. (TEX. EDUC. CODE ANN. 39.023, 19 TEX. ADMIN. CODE 4.51 through 4.60)

New Mexico passed legislation in 2003 that mandates high school curricula and end-of-course exams be aligned with the placement tests used by two- and four-year public postsecondary institutions in the state. The policy requires the state department of education and the commission on higher education to collaborate in achieving this goal. The work is currently in progress, led by a joint task force. According to the commission's Web site, The task force will make recommendations for adoption of a set of tests, a range of scores, and policy recommendations for a pilot phase to measure the effectiveness of student assessments as students prepare for postsecondary education. They will also define needed support services, early academic interventions, and better forms of academic diagnoses beginning as early as middle school years.5 (N.M. STAT. ANN. 22-2-8.11)

During the 2003-04 school year, four community colleges in Washington State piloted admissions/ placement policies that took into account the 10th grade Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) scores earned by students entering community college immediately after high school. The study looked at four sets of information: (1) WASL scores (by subject area); (2) high school course-taking in English and math, and the grades earned in these courses; (3) placement test scores by subject; and (4) students' grades in the first college-level English and math courses taken after enrolling in the colleges. The community colleges found that certain components of the English and math WASLs were the greatest predictors of grades in the first college courses in these subject areas. However, the sample sizes were small, the operation time-consuming, and implementation difficult, reinforcing the argument for a better and more coordinated statewide data system.