The LEAP Challenge Blog

K-16 Alignment on Outcomes and Assessment: Has Its Time Finally Come?

Spring is nearly here—and as we near this transition from one season to the next, it seems like a good time to address another key transition point in many people’s lives along the educational pathway from school to college—the transition between grades 12 and 13.

The current development of a set of Common Core Standards for K-12 education (adopted by 43 states and territories) presents those of us in higher education with an opportunity not to be missed. The Common Core is a step forward. It is aspirational, detailed, complex, and explicit. Its expectations for student performance extend beyond one-dimensional approaches to skills or content. It may not do all that many of us in post-secondary education would like to see (e.g. covering a fuller scope of outcomes in the sciences, humanities, or the arts). Yet it reaches for higher levels of proficiency than before for all students in English, language arts, communication, and quantitative reasoning. Unfortunately, the Common Core has yet to prompt widespread post-secondary minding and engagement. Can we change that pattern and bring about more connected work with schools on the ground?

To move forward, college and high school faculty ought to work together much more than they do now. The effort could use more grassroots activity. Evolving work on K-12 standards and assessments could be woven into the now active work on learning outcomes in colleges and universities. We see that potential within the Common Core State Standards and the two multi-state consortia now developing means to assess college and career readiness for school graduates. The consortia, Smarter Balanced and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC), include development of summative tests, but these projects also place a heavy emphasis on examining the work of students in a formative process encompassing many of the components of portfolios. The attention to student work means assessment of learning may be grounded in the classroom.

At this moment, we have within grasp an opportunity to connect and bridge ourselves as faculty, as educators, in localities, regions, and states. We can join in work to design and practice assessment that is rooted in the classroom, attentive to student work and performance, connected to the curriculum, portable across the difficult terrain between grades 12 and 13, feeding useful data and information back to faculty on both sides.

Those of us who have been both school teachers and college faculty can find ways to facilitate this work. P-16 or P-20 councils have soldiered on over the years. Perhaps their moment has come. Alignment is happening on the ground when faculty come together to discuss student work. Research conducted to support this claim is finding continuous or continual activity for school-college partnership in California, Florida, Kentucky, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Texas, Virginia, Washington State—to mention but a few easily identified examples. The activities are more numerous and varied than we can describe here, but a few examples make the point. The National Science Foundation Math and Science Partnership Program has been supporting P-20 partnerships since 2002. Achieve’s American Diploma Project is actively under way in 35 states. A promising initiative sponsored by the League for Innovation in Community Colleges, titled Significant Discussions, offers a blueprint and tools for creating collaboration anchored in community colleges and reaching back to schools and ahead to four-year institutions (see

Relationships prompted by these projects do not dissolve as quickly as funding, in its two- or three-year cycles, may disappear. The human side of the work, the satisfaction and reward of collective endeavor for the benefit of all students, definitely endures. Now is an especially good time to build durable structures and pathways on this foundation.

What now is different in higher education that makes such an endeavor imaginable? Faculty members are taking more seriously the challenges of developing and assessing learning outcomes. The Association of American Colleges & Universities’ 2009 member survey found that about 80% of campuses have identified learning outcomes for their students. Nearly all colleges and universities are working to improve their assessment of those outcomes. It is possible to align school and college benchmark expectations and to share assessments—and to attract faculty use and engagement of them, especially by general education leaders. Many willing partners on college campuses can now enter a conversation about learning outcomes and assessments and find common ground with colleagues in schools.

Think of this: we no longer need to rely only on high-stakes standardized tests to assess learning and set expectations for the smooth transition between school and college. If we share expectations—including learning goals or outcomes and benchmarks for achievement of them--and document performance through valid and reliable assessment, we can embed assessments in the curriculum in ways that will improve learning at the same time as providing data about student progress. We can share assignments and assessments electronically, through e-portfolios. We have the means to work together. AAC&U will explore these means in a series of upcoming blog posts. Stay tuned.