Peer Review, Winter 2003
Connecting the Dots: Linking High Schools
and Postsecondary Education to Increase Student Success
By David T. Conley, director, Standards for
University Success booklet is now available
from Standards for Success.
State and federal governments have launched an ambitious,
unprecedented attempt to specify and measure student learning
in the public schools. To do so, essentially every state has
developed content standards that specify what students should
know and be able to do in a broad range of subject areas.
Federal requirements will result in all states having assessment
systems to measure those standards at grades three through
eight and at least once between grades ten and twelve. Two-dozen
states have linked their tests to high school graduation,
or plan to do so. Where tests are not tied to graduation,
they are built into school accountability systems. Students
and educators alike are paying attention to these new standards
This process of "raising the bar" began in earnest in the
early 1990s, when national organizations released model content
standards. From these standards flowed state standards and
assessments, then state accountability systems. These standards
and assessments vary widely in terms of the specific content
and the challenge level of each. Comparisons of state-by-state
performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress
(NAEP) to the percentage of students in each state deemed
to have met state standards illustrates this variability.
Will standards-based educational reform result in more students
being prepared to succeed in college? Without some sort of
plan to connect the two systems, the answer is "who knows?"
As standards and assessments were developed over the past
decade, higher education faculty were either not at the table,
or were there to provide their opinions on what K-12 students
should know. They were not asked to connect high school preparation
more closely with college success. No state created educational
standards and assessments for the express purpose of increasing
college enrollments or success.
This is not to say states do not care about this issue. The
unspoken assumption often is that college preparation doesn't
need fixing or that, by raising standards, all students benefit.
Both of these assumptions continue to be largely unsubstantiated.
As others have pointed out, the quality of college preparation
is largely a hit-or-miss proposition. With the exception of
students at the nation's most selective universities, large
numbers of students struggle to succeed in entry-level college
courses. Many end up in remedial courses. No evidence exists
that student readiness to succeed in college is improving
overall, and some evidence suggests it is slipping slightly.
College completion rates, for example, have not increased
substantially in the past twenty years.
The Role of Higher Education
Why is any of this a problem for American colleges and universities?
High school teachers are under greater pressure to teach to
these standards and tests. Even in traditional college prep
classes, the curriculum can be subtly (or not so subtly) reshaped
to meet the demands of state standards. Students come to believe
they are "proficient" or "advanced" based on their state test
As all of these changes are occurring, higher education is
acting largely as a spectator under the mistaken assumption
that college-going students won't be much affected by them.
Higher education needs to engage with secondary education
in an ongoing dialogue and discussion on what should be expected
of students. A few states have begun these conversations,
but none has yet institutionalized these understandings into
an assessment system that yields data for high school graduation
on one hand, and college admission and placement on the other.
Oregon is getting close. Texas and California are developing
tests they hope can achieve this goal. Maryland spent considerable
time and effort to create end-of-course examinations that
could conceivably achieve this goal. The New York Regents
Examination has long been considered a potential tool for
this purpose. Massachusetts is looking at the Massachusetts
Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) to ascertain if it
could yield such information.
Most of this activity is occurring without reference to any
explicit set of expectations for university success. In the
absence of consistent, clearly stated postsecondary academic
content standards, states and even individual high schools
remain free to set their own. Who benefits and who suffers
due to the lack of such standards? As is all too often the
case, those who are already disadvantaged are in the greatest
danger of being left off the standards conveyor belt that
is supposed to lift all students to higher levels. Standards
that link to nothing create another potential dead-end. For
those with the knowledge and means to decipher the actual
route to college, state standards and assessments pose less
of a potential sidetrack. For those who must do as they are
told and focus on high school assessments, the prospects for
admission to (and, more importantly, success in) higher education
are not necessarily increased.
Each system, K-12 and higher education, has an obligation
to articulate its expectations and requirements. Here are
some of the challenges facing each system:
- Colleges and universities have been reluctant to enter
into the standards discussion and seem content to remain
- High school teachers often insist they know what is required
for college admission and success, even when they have little
concrete evidence that this is so.
- Entry-level college courses often function as the de
facto admissions process, screening those who can pass them
from those who can't.
- High schools remain wedded to an obsolete model of comprehensiveness
that means they do several things poorly instead of one
- Higher education institutions, which have shown the ability
to be highly adaptive in certain aspects and areas when
necessary, have shown little inclination to revamp the general
education component of their curriculum to align better
with high schools.
- High schools have shown much less improvement relative
to state standards than have elementary schools and are
under increasing pressure to "reinvent" themselves.
- Many postsecondary institutions would prefer to rank-order
high schools and perpetuate the status quo rather than work
toward systemic improvement of high schools.
- No formal mechanism exists to coordinate standard-setting
so that standards align between high school and college.
A few comments on each of these points is called for.
By remaining aloof from the standards setting and assessment
development process, higher education does avoid getting dragged
into what has all the appearances of a nasty political fight.
Who needs to take on a new problem like this? The only difficulty
with this logic is that, in the absence of higher education's
voice in the conversation, the standards debate will rage
on interminably. Once someone reaches a standard, he or she
is supposed to go on to something else. In our society, that
something is generally postsecondary education or work. While
work-related standards are necessary, college-related standards
will affect more students in the foreseeable future. With
two-thirds of high school graduates going on directly to higher
education and up to 75 percent engaging in postsecondary learning
within five years of graduation, college standards are the
logical complement to high school standards. Higher education
cannot avoid its responsibility here indefinitely.
Meanwhile, some high school teachers resist state standards
because they assert that they interfere with preparing students
for college. While many high school teachers do an excellent
job readying students for college, it is unclear how any individual
teacher knows he or she is doing the right thing. Most rely
on textbooks that are not articulated with college instruction
and may even contain subject matter at odds with college course
content. College preparation continues to emphasize coverage
over depth, although many professors assert that students
who delve deeply into fewer areas and develop greater understanding
of and stronger skills in reading and writing, problem solving
and critical thinking, do better in college than those who
get A's in high school but don't develop these skills.
When these students arrive at college, having met or exceeded
all entrance requirements and believing they are well prepared,
they may end up confronting a course designed to sort those
who are college-ready from those who are merely admitted.
This is perhaps more true in mathematics and the sciences,
but examples can be found in any discipline. One effect is
to increase the freshman dropout rate. Another more insidious
outcome is to cut students off from careers in whole fields.
Having failed to complete the first course in a sequence,
the student is effectively barred from any major requiring
that subject. Witness the relative shortage of American college
graduates in mathematics and the sciences as evidence of this
phenomenon. Embedding college success standards in entry-level
college courses and aligning high school standards with them
would help alleviate the problem.
The American high school is struggling to find its identity.
The current organizational structure was promoted by a university
president, James Bryant Conant. It is based on sorting students
into tracks. The presumption that even a moderately large
high school can provide distinctly different programs to different
types of students is increasingly difficult to defend. Traditional
vocational education programs cannot match the current complexity
of the economy or of the skills required for most technical
occupations. Community colleges are better suited to this
task. The general education track is truly a road to nowhere.
The college preparation program, as noted earlier, operates
on good intentions and hope. The best hope for a new organizing
principle for high schools is a strong core curriculum for
all students combined with acceleration for all students as
they demonstrate they can benefit from it. Acceleration is
for the purpose of deepening and strengthening core academic
skills through challenging content, not merely covering more
material. Connections with workplace training and postsecondary
education create opportunities for students to leave high
school as they demonstrate they are ready. Higher education
must be ready to help define a core curriculum that enables
all students to make successful transitions to college or
Few brave souls venture into the thicket of college and university
general education requirements, and those who do emerge with
scars. This most uniquely American aspect of the college curriculum
has become overrun by complex requirements tied to literally
hundreds of course titles. It is hard to say what the general
education program of study manifests intellectually or otherwise.
This lack of clarity would perhaps be of less concern if incoming
students were being placed appropriately. Instead, the requirements
result in some students repeating much of what they have already
learned, while others struggle to keep up with material that
is far too complex. A commitment to be clear and consistent
on the prerequisite knowledge and skills required for success
in entry-level general education courses would enable the
creation of effective placement procedures that could even
motivate high school students to continue to work hard and
achieve throughout their senior year.
As state testing systems begin to yield longitudinal data,
it is becoming clear that high schools are not improving relative
to state goals at an acceptable rate. Although many explanations
for this phenomenon have been offered, states are putting
more pressure on high schools to reinvent themselves. As noted
above, a high school core curriculum is one potential idea,
although not necessarily a popular one. The high school reform-du-jour
is the "small learning community:" dividing large high schools
up into smaller schools-within-schools. This may yet prove
to be an effective reform strategy. However, here again, higher
education is not a partner in this redesign process. These
learning communities are being designed and implemented with
only the most general notions of how they relate to college
success. They will, in all likelihood, be influenced by state
assessment requirements. Another nascent model for high school
reform, the middle college high school, holds greater promise,
but it absolutely requires more direct involvement and engagement
across the high school-college boundary.
All of this high school redesign will prove challenging to
traditional college practices of ranking high schools, formally
or informally, in terms of their academic quality. This tradition
is more prevalent among universities that draw regionally
or nationally. The problem is that the correlation between
"good" high schools and socioeconomic success is strong. For
high schools that send few students on to these selective
universities, it is essentially impossible to show that more
of their students might be capable of succeeding. A closer
connection between state assessments and university admissions
criteria could allow students to demonstrate ability, independent
of their high school of origin. Admissions officers could
compare a student's performance on state tests to all other
students in the state. This could provide a potential advantage
to students from high schools that historically send fewer
students on to selective colleges. This method might also
offer an alternative to SAT/ACT scores by replacing them with
curriculum-based measures. But state tests must be linked
with college success standards for this strategy to work.
Standards for Success
These trends, practices, and policies are historical artifacts
of an American educational system that has always been divided
between high school and college. Many forces are converging
to enforce a stronger nexus between the two, including a few
efforts underway in the higher education community. One example
is a project sponsored by the Association of American Universities
and The Pew Charitable Trusts, called Standards for Success.
It has developed a set of standards for success in entry-level
university courses. The project has also analyzed high school
tests from twenty-five states. These two products show the
expectations each system holds for students and the alignment
The Knowledge and Skills for University Success standards
produced by this project identify specific content knowledge
in six disciplinary areas (English, math, science, social
sciences, second languages, and the arts) along with a range
of more general cognitive skills that cut across subject areas.
The content knowledge standards are written in a taxonomic
format similar to that found in K-12 standards documents,
with several levels of detail and specificity. The cognitive
and cross-disciplinary skills--such as writing, critical reasoning,
analytic thinking, and inquisitiveness--are described in a
narrative section that illustrates their importance and uses.
These standards will be distributed in two formats: a brochure
listing the standards and a CD-ROM in which the standards
are linked to examples of work from students in entry-level
university courses that illustrate the challenge level associated
with each standard. Copies of the document and the disc will
be sent to every high school in the country as well as to
state education departments and standard-setting organizations.
The goal is to provide those in secondary education with a
reference point against which high school standards and assessments
can be compared. No such set of standards exists currently.
Using these standards, state education departments can determine
if their tests align well with preparation for success in
college. High school teachers can consider whether their curriculum
is consistent with college success as well. High school students
can gauge the distance they have to travel to be ready for
college and can gear their efforts in high school accordingly.
The challenge faced by this project and other similar efforts
is to engage higher education faculty and administrators to
integrate academic content standards into admissions criteria
and undergraduate courses, and to convince state education
officials that higher education is serious about becoming
a real partner in standards-driven education reform. Now is
an excellent time for forward-looking members of the postsecondary
community to grapple with the issues presented here with the
goal of increasing success for all students, in high school