Redefining College Readiness: Efforts from Leading States

Redefining College Readiness: Efforts from Leading States
Redefining College Readiness: Efforts from Leading States



This forum is the first in a series of three events entitled “Laying the Groundwork for a College-Going and Career-Ready Culture” focused on efforts to ensure more high school students graduate, both understanding their options for continued education and training and ready to succeed in college and careers.

Research has advanced on the question of what we mean by “college-readiness” as well as “career-readiness,” and to what extent they are the same. Notable research shows that while content knowledge is important, critical thinking and time-managements skills and knowledge of how to access college resources are often overlooked, though they contribute significantly to success in college. Some states have already made advances in instituting curricular reforms and encouraging collaboration. But structural constraints remain, at the state and federal policy levels, particularly the separation of K-12 and postsecondary education at the policy level.

Presenters at the event both defined critical indicators for college readiness as supported by the research and described efforts in California, Arkansas and Indiana, to create statewide high school graduation standards more closely aligned with expectations for success in postsecondary education and work.

David Conley, Director CEO of the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC), began by identifying six aspects to laying the groundwork for a college-going Culture. Dr. Conley’s recent monograph, Redefining College Readiness, provides a more comprehensive definition of college readiness.. The document suggests that, while much has been learned about this phenomenon, particularly during the past 20 years, few systematic attempts have been made to integrate the various aspects or components of college readiness that have been investigated in some depth during this period of time. As a result, college readiness continues to be defined primarily in terms of high school courses taken and grades received, along with scores on national tests, as its primary metrics. Conley continued by outlining six aspects.

The first aspect is “understanding the research on college readiness”. This includes EPIC’s current research to understand what it takes to succeed in college-level courses. This research both defines what comprises a “college course” and identifies the content knowledge and learning strategies necessary for students to succeed.  Other key research areas include determining the similarities and differences across post-secondary types—selective, open, public, private, two-year, four-year, for-profit—as well as which “college-readiness” skills overlap with “career-readiness.”  To address these questions, EPIC studied thousands of entry-level college courses, analyzed over 100,000 Advanced Placement course syllabi, and studied 38 exemplary high schools.

The second aspect is to “adopt a common definition of what college ready means.” EPIC’s definition of college-ready is “the level of preparation a student needs in order to enroll and succeed—without remediation—in credit-bearing general education courses that meet requirements for a baccalaureate degree.”  Conley further described four key dimensions of college readiness: key cognitive strategies, including problem solving, research, interpretation and reasoning; key foundational content knowledge and “big ideas” from core subjects; academic behavior, such as time management and study skills; and contextual skills and awareness, which refers to knowledge of admissions requirements, affording college, and accessing professors and key resources.

Conley’s third aspect is to “apply lessons learned from the research.” Examples include ensuring that students are fully ready in all four dimensions, and utilizing more comprehensive assessments that gauge cognitive strategies—not simply content knowledge.  High schools must also play a more active role in collaborating with colleges directly through the process of policy formation at the local, state, and federal levels.

Conley then provided seven key principles of college readiness to apply to high schools. Broadly, they encompassed creating and maintaining a culture of college-going, creating curriculum that prepares students in key content knowledge and cognitive strategies, as well as teaching the tools, self-management, and college literacy necessary to enroll and succeed in entry-level courses, making senior year more meaning and challenging, and creating strong partnerships and connections to postsecondary institutions.

The fifth aspect is “developing enabling state and federal policy.” Conley pointed to the need to bring secondary and postsecondary voices to the same table, and to create financial incentives for the two systems to work together.  He noted efforts in Texas that have engaged secondary and postsecondary systems in creating a set of college-readiness standards.  Texas’s framework includes the creation standards, curriculum, and assessments geared toward aligning the K-12 system with regard to college skills and work.  He also noted other efforts to collaborate and align standards and curriculum, including efforts from the Gates and Carnegie Foundations, Achieve, and several states, as well as the U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top fund and Common Core Standards project.

Conley closed by urging educators and policymakers to “get the ball rolling,” the sixth aspect, noting the importance of bringing the systems together, creating networks both within and outside the context of state and federal governments, and the need for more effective data sharing.

Nevin Brown, Senior Fellow, Postsecondary Engagement for Achieve, began his remarks with an overview of Achieve’s main projects and policy areas, before turning to Achieve’s signature program, the American Diploma Project Network (ADP Network).

Established in 2005, the ADP Network currently includes 35 states. ADP’s goals are for all states to: align high school standards and assessments with the knowledge and skills required for success after high school; require all graduates to take rigorous courses that prepare them for life after high school; streamline assessments so that high school tests can also serve as placement tests for college and hiring in the workplace; and hold both high schools and colleges accountable for student success.  Brown noted the progress of several states around the above goals, noting rapid progress on strengthening the alignment and standards, but noting that states have made less progress in the area of creating effective accountability systems.

The ADP has several mechanisms through which it works to effect change. These include Alignment Institutes; the ADP Assessment Consortium, which allows states to share best practices and drive improvements in effective assessment; and the College- and Career-Ready Policy Institute, a comprehensive technical assistance effort supporting work in eight states with support from a number of other national partners.

Next Brown turned to his first case study, describing progress in creating college-ready culture in Indiana, which has developed a coordinated strategy to improve/align standards and assessments. These efforts were prompted by a low college-going rate, as Indiana was 40th in college-going rate in 1996. The state brought together policymakers, business leaders, and educators in both the K-12 and post-secondary systems to create the Core 40 curriculum.  Core 40 is a statewide default curriculum that includes course requirements for mathematics through Algebra II and four years of English/language arts. The curriculum also provides several diploma options including Academic Honors and Technical Honors for students who meet additional requirements in each of these areas. In an effort to alignment the Core 40 curriculum with the requirements for success in postsecondary education and the workforce, Indiana has developed end-of-course assessments for 11th grade courses in partnership with higher education and the business sector.

The process of developing Core 40 brought in stakeholders from various sectors, which has increased the credibility of the effort. Beginning in 2011, a Core 40 diploma will be required for Indiana residents’ entry to postsecondary schools in the state.  Additionally, the state has given significant financial backing to Core 40, offering scholarships of up to100% of in-state tuition to public college and universities in the state, and up to $10,000 to private schools, for qualified graduates with Academic Honors or Technical Honors diplomas. Funds are also available to cover the cost of Advanced Placement exams.

Finally, the state has combined its curriculum changes with other efforts to build a culture of college going in the state.  Programs have included increased production and distribution of information about college to students and families, the expansion of GEAR-Up, and College Goal Sunday, a yearly event where families receive training in how to complete federal and state student aid forms.

While the Core 40 became mandatory for students entering high school in the fall of 2007, Brown pointed to some promising initial results. In 1992: 51% of IN high school graduates went to college; by 2006, that had risen to 63% (exceeds US average). In 1990-91, 12% of high school students graduated with an academic program equivalent to the Core 40 Academic Honors diploma; by 2006: 70% graduated with Academic Honors.

Brown’s second case study was the Early Assessment Program in California. Prompted by the incredible need for remediation(60% of incoming first-year students in the California State University (CSU) system  in 1997), the CSU Board of Trustees set a goal of reducing that number to 10% by 2007, and they reached out to the State Board of Education and the California Department of Education to find a solution.

These three partners worked with leaders from K-12 and CSU to create the Early Assessment Program (EAP) initiative. EAP utilizes a three-prong approach: early testing on college-type material; more college content in 12th grade for students who need additional preparation based on EAP test results; and expanding teacher professional development in English language arts and math.

In 2003, the EAP (which consists of an additional set of questions to the existing California Standards Test (CST), was installed as a pilot program, given to 11th grade students in 100 high schools.  In 2004, the first full year of the program, participation grew to 150,000 juniors taking the English language arts exam and 115,000 taking the math exam; by 2008, more than 380,000 students taking the English language arts assessment and 300,000 taking the math assessment.  In an early assessment of impact, a study recently released at the 2009 AERA conference indicated that the program has led to a statistically significant drop in the number of students needing remediation during the first five years of the program (based on results from one large campus in the system).

California is now looking at how to expand use of EAP Assessment to the community college system and how to strengthen professional development for secondary teachers in mathematics and English/language arts.


Brown closed by discussing the role and promise of federal policy in creating lasting change. California and Indiana are exceptions, rather than typical, and in order to expand the reach, more institutions and systems need to be engaged throughout the P-20 process.  Brown asserted that the federal government could do more to help this process.   For example, much of the language in the federal stimulus has focused on K-12, rather than how postsecondary institutions will be engaged. Brown pointed out that there continue to be separate authorizations (Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and Higher Education Act) at a time when the two education sectors need to become more connected to each other.  If the federal government is not dealing with a comprehensive P-20 system, Brown asserted, it will be difficult to convince states to act.


Heather Gage, Special Advisor to the Commissioner in the Arkansas Department of Education, provided another state’s perspective. She began by discussing the political and legal path of education reform in Arkansas, beginning with the Lake View court cases—key litigation dealing with equity and access to resources that served as primary drivers for reform efforts.

In response to the Lake View decisions, Arkansas passed legislation from 2004 to 2006 that added $700 million to the state education budget. In addition to simply generating extra revenue, the state passed laws that made fixing crumbling facilities a priority, ensured that education would be funded first, and infused $100 million in Pre-K funding into the department of human services budget. In addition, Arkansas past and current governor have placed education and economic development as top priorities.

The state is now engaged in systemic reform, which seeks to change the culture of low expectations in state, to prepare all students with rigorous coursework at both the secondary and postsecondary levels. Chief in these efforts is the Smart Arkansas suite, a series of programs that deal with elementary, middle and high school reform, professional development, and that combine for a more strategic and systemic way to support low-performing students. The state seeks to institute challenging standards and assessments aligned to college and career expectations, partner with various stakeholders, and promote the new Smart Core curriculum recently instituted in Arkansas.

While Smart Core was implemented recently, the state has seen some early indications of progress, and has been recognized accordingly. Arkansas has seen one of the nation’s largest increases in students taking Advanced Placement exams and getting 3 or higher. The state has also created and supported with some additional funds a 60-hour requirement for teacher professional development each year.

Arkansas has laid some of the policy framework for systemic reform, but continues to capitalize on resources available to improve both policy and practice throughout the state. Arkansas is working with Achieve to align math and literacy standards to college and career-ready expectations. The state is among the top 10 for having proficiency standards aligned with the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP); one of seven states selected for a National Math Science Initiative grant; one of the eight states participating in Career and College-ready Policy Institute mentioned previously.

Gage also pointed to several quantitative indications of progress in state standardized exam scores. Benchmark Exams in math have risen each year from 2005-08 in grades 3-8, and Benchmark Exams in literacy have also risen from 2005-08 for each grade. Additionally, for the second year in a row, scores on 2008 benchmark exams represented a narrowing of the achievement gap (8 of 12 exams b/w Caucasian students and African American students; and 7 of 12 exams b/w Caucasian students and Latino students).

Going forward, Arkansas seeks to work closer with partners in higher education. The Governor’s Task Force on Remediation, Retention and Graduation Rates made eight recommendations for further strengthening reform and results. These include: Strengthening the Arkansas Education Pipeline; Improving Preparation; Decreasing Remediation; Accessing Financial Aid; Increasing Retention and Graduation; Enhancing Funding and Governance; Addressing Data Needs; and Supporting Economic Development.

Finally, Arkansas recognizes the importance of educating families and communities about the value and accessibility of college for prepared students.  The state is sponsoring a Say Go College Campaign, to get more information on post high school options out to students and families across the state. In addition, Arkansas is leveraging its work at community colleges through the Achieving the Dream initiative to build a stronger culture of college readiness.


Highlights from the Question and Answer Session


The first question, addressed to Conley, asked about assessments and the need to “use deeper questions” in assessments.  The questioner also asked for examples of states that are doing a good job of using better assessments. Conley said that he wasn’t sure which states have strong tests in terms of content, noting that for subjects such as social studies, content can raise political questions.   He asserted that more importantly, we need to be testing skills of higher order thinking, such as the ability to compare and contrast two documents.  Additionally, Conley urged educators to get away from the split between testing and teaching. He mentioned that the Gates Foundation has recently put money into exploring better assessments, and that states such as Oregon and a consortium in New England have shown some promise. He noted that there has been progress in this area for formative assessments, but that the problem is instituting these changes in a high-stakes assessment environment.

The second question asked about the negative consequences of instituting a rigorous statewide curriculum, noting that Education Week mentioned a higher dropout rate as a result of the Core 40 curriculum installment. Nevin Brown conceded that there was a drop in graduation rates in the early years of Core 40, but said that the state has seen an increased high school completion rate in recent years. He also noted that with the installment of Core 40, the state changed the way they count dropouts, and this may have been partially responsible for the initial change in numbers. Brown spoke of the need to engage more people in the process of building a college-going culture, and that all school employees must see themselves as educators and to help create a culture of achievement. Finally, Conley noted that the United States education system is a “second chance system” given the presence of the GED system, and urged us to ask an additional important question, whether the quality of Indiana’s dropouts is better as a result of the Core 40 implementation.

The third question dealt with the role of extended learning opportunities, and what part they should play in expanding readiness. Gage said that Arkansas is encouraging localities and districts to think about extended learning opportunities as they apply for stimulus money. Conley noted that Oregon has adopted a “credit for proficiency” model, which incorporates experiential learning for credit. And Betsy Brand pointed to a recent AYPF publication, “Learning Around the Clock:  Benefits of Expanded Learning Opportunities for Older Youth,” that looks at the benefits of expanded learning opportunities.

The fourth question, directed to Conley, asked about creating incentives for higher education faculty to engage in these conversations. Conley asserted the importance of creating a framework and a common set of expectations.  He noted that in the examples of state efforts that have worked, individual institutions were responsible for creating incentives. He also mentioned that some institutions have developed a cadre of faculty interested in working in these areas, drawing upon the natural interests of certain professors.

The fifth question asked about challenges along the way—what have been the reactions of teachers, school leaders to state policy efforts? Gage pointed to the importance of building a framework for conversation, and make sure the voices of all stakeholders are heard throughout the process. She noted that many teachers, administrators and counselors have real fears about losing some of their students if academic requirements are raised. She mentioned the need to build the financial resources, to prove that the financial and human capital wherewithal will be there. And she also mentioned that this is a long process, and we need to see the first rounds of data, to build momentum. Gage pointed to this problem as one of the reasons that Arkansas focuses on long-term systemic reform, rather than a series of initiatives. Brown noted the real community fear of “losing our children” and talked about the challenge in many poor places, that reforming schools must be done in conjunction with rebuilding economies. And Conley said that we must continue to consult the research, because there are some teachers who don’t think all students can/should go to college – we shouldn’t assume that college-ready and career-ready skills are all the same.



Nevin Brown joined Achieve as Senior Fellow, Postsecondary Engagement in September 2008. In this capacity, Mr. Brown is responsible for advancing Achieve’s mission through engagement with the postsecondary community.

Before joining Achieve, Mr. Brown was president of the International Partnership for Service-Learning and Leadership (IPSL), a New York-based organization that provided academic and community service study-abroad opportunities for undergraduate and graduate students in ten nations worldwide.   Prior to moving to New York in 2003, Mr. Brown was for eleven years a principal partner with the Education Trust; he worked particularly closely with community-based school-university collaborative initiatives in a number of cities throughout the United States (through the Trust’s K-16 and Community Compacts for Student Success initiatives), directed for six years the Trust’s annual national conferences, and was the communications officer for the Quality in Undergraduate Education initiative, through which two- and four-year postsecondary institutions have developed standards for academic achievement in five core disciplines.  From 1980-1991, Mr. Brown headed the Division of Urban Affairs of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges (NASULGC), where he worked with nearly 100 public urban universities located in most of the nation’s major metropolitan areas.  While at NASULGC, Mr. Brown also directed a program of urban university-urban school collaborative initiatives in sixteen U.S. cities, with funding from the Ford and Exxon Education Foundations.

Mr. Brown also has held previous appointments with the District of Columbia Public Schools, the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU), the University of Houston, and the Southern Regional Council’s Southern Governmental Monitoring Project.

An historian by academic training, Brown has spent most of his professional career working in the areas of urban policy and education.  Among his professional affiliations, Brown has been a member of the governing boards of the Urban Affairs Association (UAA), the National History Education Network, and the Colleges and Universities of the Anglican Communion (CUAC).  He has also served as a review panelist for the National Science Foundation, Innovations in American Government Awards, and National History Day, and as a member of the editorial boards of several professional journals.  He also co-chaired the European Links Committee for UAA from 1995-2003, through which he was involved in the creation of the European Urban Research Association (EURA).

Brown received a B.A. with highest honors in history from the University of California, Santa Barbara in 1972 and an M.A. in history from the University of Virginia the following year.  In 2001 he received the Urban Hero Award of the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges.

Dr. David T. Conley, Dr. David T. Conley is Professor of Educational Policy and Leadership in the College of Education, University of Oregon. He is the founder and director of the Center for Educational Policy Research (CEPR), and founder and chief executive officer of the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC), a 501(c)3 non-profit educational research organization.

Dr. Conley spent 20 years as a school-level and central office administrator in several districts, an executive in a state education department, and as a teacher in two public, multicultural, alternative schools before entering higher education 19 years ago.

Over the past 12 years, Dr. Conley has received over $15 million in grants and contracts from federal and state governments, national education organizations, and foundations to conduct research on issues such as adequacy funding, accountability systems, alternative methods of assessment, proficiency-based admission, and high school-college alignment. He has published the results of this research and other studies in numerous journal articles, technical reports, conference papers, book chapters, and books, including Who Governs Our Schools? (2003), which analyzes changes in educational policy and governance structures at the federal, state, and local levels.

In 2003, Dr. Conley completed a groundbreaking research project to identify the knowledge and skills necessary for college readiness: Standards for Success (funded by the Association of American Universities and the Pew Charitable Trust). This project analyzed course content at a range of American research universities to develop the “Knowledge and Skills for University Success” standards.

Dr. Conley is the author of College Knowledge: What It Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready (2005), in addition to numerous articles, reports, papers, and book chapters. His next publication, available fall 2009, is entitled College Ready.

Dr. Conley completed his doctoral work in Curriculum, Administration, and Supervision at the University of Colorado at Boulder, where he also received a master’s degree in Social, Multicultural, and Bilingual Foundations of Education. He earned his B.A. with honors in Social Sciences from the University of California at Berkeley.

Heather Gage, presently works for the Arkansas Department of Education as a Special Advisor to the Commissioner. She focuses on policy and research at the state and federal levels as well as serves as the department’s liaison to the USDoE, SREB and the Arkansas Department of Higher Education (ADHE). For the past fourteen years, Gage has worked with non-profit, government and private agencies to help bridge the gap between the community and public education as well as assisting in the development of educational policy.  Heather holds a Bachelor of Social Work degree from the University of Maine and a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.




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.