Linking K-12 Standards with College Admissions: Oregon’s Proficiency-based Admissions Standards System (PASS)

Linking K-12 Standards with College Admissions: Oregon’s Proficiency-based Admissions Standards System (PASS)
Linking K-12 Standards with College Admissions: Oregon’s Proficiency-based Admissions Standards System (PASS)


Although many states have adopted high academic standards and assessment measures for their K-12 school systems, few have taken what seems the logical next step of linking these standards to the college admissions and placement process. Oregon is blazing a trail in this area with the Proficiency-based Admission Standards System (PASS), which attempts to align the state’s secondary and post-secondary educational systems. Dr. David T. Conley, the founder and Executive Director of PASS and an Associate Professor at the University of Oregon, flew to Washington, DC to meet with education reformers in the standards movement from other states and to address policymakers at an AYPF-sponsored forum on Capitol Hill.


Forum Brief

Since 1993, Conley has advocated performance-based assessment standards in Oregon’s public schools that could also function as an admissions and placement system for the state’s institutions of higher education. At the high school level, Oregon has recently begun using Certificates of Initial Mastery (CIM) and its proficiency-based standards at the tenth grade, while work on the Certificates of Advanced Mastery (CAM) and its twelfth grade standards continues. When fully implemented, PASS will align these standards with college admissions and placement by ensuring that students demonstrate proficiency in six areas: math, science, English, social science, arts, and a second language. Proficiency levels in these skill areas will then be used for admissions and placement. Currently, 65 high schools serving over half of Oregon’s students in secondary education are piloting PASS assessments and transcripting methods in math, English and science. Within the next several years, Conley believes more schools will adopt PASS as the remaining proficiency standards are created and integrated into the college admissions process. In the fall of 2005, PASS will become the preferred form of admission for in-state applicants to Oregon’s seven public universities.

“Conceptualizing the standards is not the hardest part,” Conley says, “implementing them is.” The introduction of any new element into the school system has the potential to cause “turmoil” in the short run, and the introduction of PASS has been no exception. For instance, one of Conley’s daughters completed the test for her CIM last year, the first year of implementation in her school, and she has yet to receive the results. Despite the difficulty of implementation, Conley feels that the long-term benefits of an aligned educational system will include improved student achievement and a smoother transition from secondary to post-secondary education, although it will likely take ten to fifteen years for these benefits to be realized. To get more immediate data, program evaluators compared PASS proficiency scores with traditional grades for 550 Oregon high school seniors last year. The results of this evaluation indicate there is a positive correlation between grades and proficiency scores, but that they do not appear to be measuring exactly the same thing. Results of this study will be released within the next few months, but even positive outcomes on this pilot comparison may not be enough to persuade impatient policymakers.

To address the legitimate concerns about linking admissions to proficiency standards, Conley argues that the Oregon system has three major advantages over standards and assessment systems used in other states. First, PASS allows Oregon to use high academic standards as an incentive for achievement, rather than a sanction, by connecting the standards to college admissions and placement. Second, unlike California and Georgia that have one standard for high school math (applied) and another for college math (conceptual), the PASS system ensures that all students are proficient in the mathematics demanded by institutions of higher learning precisely because of the alignment of secondary and post-secondary standards. Third, because of this alignment, Conley believes that PASS will improve the completion rates for students who are better prepared for college at the same time it makes acceptance and placement decisions more accurate reflections of academic proficiency and promise.

In addition to his work overseeing the implementation of PASS in Oregon, Conley is also working with the Association of American Universities (AAU) to create a clearinghouse for information on state academic standards. Funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts and contributions from AAU member universities, the AAU Standards Clearinghouse analyzes state assessments and standards to determine their uses for university admissions and placement. The Clearinghouse also provides feedback to states to help them improve their standards and assessment systems. One of the ways the Clearinghouse is disseminating the information that it has collected is through a CD-ROM of student work that meets admissions standards for AAU institutions. Using the CD, students can see representative freshman-level work, course outlines, and assessments used in entry-level courses at AAU member universities. AAU plans to distribute the CD to every high school in America.

Conley concluded his presentation at the AYPF forum with a discussion of the policy implications for proficiency-based standards, assessment, and college admissions. Because the PASS system includes external checks on proficiency assessments of students, Conley argues that it counters grade inflation and makes comparisons between schools easier. As with other standards systems, PASS will call attention to under-performing schools, forcing policymakers to reckon with disparities in educational quality and college preparedness. However, because the system is only in the first few years of implementation, Conley does not have data on how PASS affects low-income and minority student acceptance and retention rates in Oregon’s universities.

One of the most important things to consider when analyzing PASS or other state systems is the dynamic nature of the standards, assessment, and admissions processes. Conley freely admits that they are still “working out the kinks” in Oregon and other states that have made the first steps to link state academic standards to college admission and placement decisions. But the process of improving these standards, the flexibility of the system that Conley advocates, is part of the power of proficiency-based assessment. As universities evolve and grow, a system like PASS will allow the high schools to keep up with the changing needs of higher education, so that all secondary students are well prepared for college.

This brief is from an American Youth Policy Forum held on April 7, 2000 on Capitol Hill, and was reported by Steve Estes.

Presenter Information


Dr. David T. Conley

Founder/Executive Director

Proficiency-based Admissions Standards System (PASS)

P.O. Box 3175

Eugene, Oregon 97403-0175



The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.