Education Policy Program at New America
April 13, 2016
For many students in the United States, the path between high school graduation and college completion is littered with detours and roadblocks. Low-income students, in particular, encounter obstacles at numerous junctures, from the college admission and financial aid process to their registration for first-year coursework. More troubling still, students often find that they are academically unprepared for college-level work and must therefore enroll in non-credit-bearing, remedial courses.
The toll these challenges take is tangible: of the roughly 80 percent of students nationwide who graduate from high school, only 40 percent make it through the doors of postsecondary institutions within six years (National Center for Education Statistics, 2015; National Center for Education Statistics, 2013). Of this subset, between 28 and 40 percent must enroll in non-credit-bearing coursework in their first year (a statistic closer to 50 percent for those enrolled in two-year colleges), which four in ten eventually fail to complete (National Conference of State Legislatures, 2010). Even students who do move through remedial and into credit-bearing work, the picture is far from encouraging: an estimated one in ten completes a community college credential, fewer than a third a bachelor’s degree (Complete College America, 2012). Thus, a key challenge states face is creating robust links between high school graduation and college readiness. Are states rising to the challenge?
“Mapping College Ready Policies 2015-16,” a data visualization project recently released by the Education Policy Program at New America, analyzes individual states’ progress towards ensuring that all students are on a sturdy bridge from high school to higher education.
The project, compiled using publically-accessible information hosted on state websites and ESEA flexibility waivers, first describes the landscape of state college- and career-ready policies: each state’s college- and career-readiness and PK-12 academic standards, assessments of the same, and requirements for high school graduation. The project secondly assesses the alignment between each state’s PK-12 requirements and those of its institutions of higher education (college admissions, state merit aid, and course placement policies). Finally, New America rates each state’s PreK – college pipeline as a bridge (those that are fully aligned between high school and higher education), a detour (partially aligned), or a roadblock (not at all aligned).
New America’s findings suggest that while nearly all states have held to high college- and career-ready academic standards, most have failed to provide consistent formative assessments that gauge student mastery of those standards through elementary and secondary school. Instead, the past year has seen rapid shifts in states’ PreK-12 assessments, many of which had been implemented only the year before. Ohio, for instance, eliminated the PARCC assessments after just one year. Ohio is not alone: a significant number of states withdrew from the use of consortium assessments PARCC and Smarter Balanced (six eliminated consortium assessments in grades 3-8, while ten discontinued them for high school grades), and still more replaced standards-based high school assessments with college entrance exams such as the SAT or ACT. It remains to be seen how effectively these states maintain buy-in for assessments, collect accurate data, and use them to improve student outcomes.
New America also found that states made scant progress in building a strong bridge between high school and higher education. New America’s research compared:
● States’ high school coursework requirements to those required for admission to the state’s higher education system;
● States’ criteria for receiving state merit aid to high school requirements (e.g. if students are required to submit an assessment score, is that assessment required by high schools?);
● States’ higher education course placement policies to assessments required in the state’s high schools (e.g. if students take Smarter Balanced assessments in high school, can they use passing scores to place into credit-bearing college courses?).
Comparing this school year with the last, only six states made forward progress on any one of these measures. For instance, New Jersey’s community college system removed one roadblock in 2015-2016: students may now use proficient scores on the PARCC exams to place into credit-bearing college coursework. New America designated this promising start a “detour,” however, as the policy has not been adopted by all of New Jersey’s public institutions. Such modest gains point to the urgent need for policymakers in every state to engage in substantive dialogue and policy alignments that support students’ entire academic trajectory.
A more robust example of alignment is California’s Early Assessment Program, which convened the state’s Board of Education, Department of Education, and California State University. Working in concert, these groups constructed a program that measures students’ readiness for college and career in the 11th grade and triggers interventions to ensure adequate preparation by high school graduation. Additionally, the program has back-mapped introductory-level college writing standards into the state’s high school requirements
In sum, New America’s research suggests that states are moving at markedly different speeds in each area of college- and career-ready policy. If states are to shoulder the greater responsibility granted by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) effectively, they need to establish an accurate measure of their students’ progress and preparation. ESSA thus provides an opportunity for states to create well-considered policies that build bridges, end detours, and remove roadblocks to student success. If students across the country can count on an accurate and consistent system of assessment that they can leverage on the path to higher education, we may well see movement in the number of students succeeding in high school and beyond.
N.a. (2012) Remediation: Higher Education’s Bridge to Nowhere. Complete College America. Retrieved from:
N.a. (2015) Public High School Graduation Rates. National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_coi.asp
N.a. (2013) Table 302.60. Percentage of 18- to 24-year-olds enrolled in degree-granting institutions, by level of institution and sex and race/ethnicity of student: 1967 through 2012. National Center for Education Statistics. Retrieved from: http://nces.ed.gov/programs/digest/d13/tables/dt13_302.60.asp
N.a. (2010) Improving College Completion: Action Steps for Legislators. National Conference of State Legislatures. Retrieved from: