Research from The Educational Forum: Improving High School–College Alignment

Today’s blogger is Jiffy Lansing, Senior Researcher at Chapin Hall, University of Chicago. She writes here to describe research recently published in an article (coauthored by Caitlin Ahearn, James E. Rosenbaum, Christine Mokher, and Lou Jacobson) in The Educational Forum.

As policy focus on providing financial supports for low-income students to gain access to college has grown, the college graduation gap has also increased. One of the factors related to low college graduation rates is that many students spend significant time and money on remedial courses. These courses do not bear college credit and are often misunderstood by students as “college” courses. Students end up in remedial courses as a result of their scores on a college placement test, a test that many students were not expecting to take and did not study for. Rather than blaming students for being unprepared or simply providing information to students about the consequences of their placement test scores on their college course offerings, a sociological perspective on this issue highlights potential systemic adaptations that could promote college success. An approach that addresses the current loose coupling and poor alignment between high school and college systems could be an effective way to promote college success for all students. However, such system-level reforms are challenging in the decentralized context of education in the United States.

My colleagues and I explored how teachers strive to implement Florida’s statewide initiative to attempt to align high school and college performance standards. Our study highlights important implementation considerations and the efforts teachers make despite short notice and minimal additional resources. It also underscores the importance of including career education in the alignment of secondary and postsecondary institutions.

The state of Florida recently implemented a statewide initiative that aims to better align high school and college expectations. Florida is one of only seven states with a single common placement test: the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT). Florida’s reform, the Florida College and Career Readiness Initiative (FCCRI), was designed to take advantage of the common placement test to improve students’ preparation for college. The reform targeted students who were close to achieving college readiness standards. Starting in 2012, Florida mandated the PERT college test for all high school juniors who scored in the middle range of the high school exit exam (FCAT) as sophomores, and required seniors to take College Readiness and Success (CRS) courses in 12th grade if they tested below college-ready on PERT. These courses were offered in math and English, and intended to help students pass the PERT when they enroll in college. Ultimately, the FCCRI sought to create alignment by testing students early and repairing seniors’ achievement gaps.

Our paper reports findings from a study of teacher responses to Florida’s alignment reform. We examine:

  • Whether CRS teachers felt the reform succeeded at meeting its goals
  • Teachers’ views of the reform’s shortcomings
  • Actions they took to make it work
  • What more was required
  • Their views of what improved and what got worse in the second year.

Analyses are based on a survey of teachers conducted in the spring of 2013 and again in the spring of 2014, the first and second years of the mandatory CRS offerings.

We expected teachers might express skepticism about the program because it offered little advance notice, vague standards, and few resources. Instead, teachers embraced the reform’s goals and worked to implement them despite impediments. Most teachers evaluated the reform as moderately to extremely effective. English teachers reported more difficulty, rated effectiveness lower, and made more efforts to use outside resources than math teachers. Both math and English teachers equally felt that heterogeneous students and lack of PERT information, textbook resources, and diagnostic tools impeded the initiative.

Apart from improved diagnostic tools, the next most common impediments reported were a lack of planning time or curricular supports. In Year 2, teachers reported conflicting perceptions of whether the initiative improved since Year 1. Importantly, besides the discrepancies noted in the first year, teachers reported those discrepancies increased further in the second year, with improvements most often reported in engagement for college-bound students.

At the same time, teachers were least likely (19%) to report improvements for engagement of non-college-bound students. This, along with the increased change for academic heterogeneity problems, indicates that teachers continued to struggle with student differences in their classrooms, especially for non-college-bound students. When the reform is working with college-bound students of similar academic achievement, teachers have fewer difficulties. However, when the reform involves many non-college-bound students or heterogeneous achievement levels, teachers face serious impediments.

This study shows that the sociological approach to alignment can be done, and teachers perceived it to be effective with college-bound students. Even the reform’s failure to provide resources did not discourage teachers’ efforts. Teachers found supportive resources, although they identified additional types of support that would further improve its effectiveness. However, student heterogeneity remained an issue. College-bound students’ engagement increased more than it decreased, while the opposite was true for non-college-bound students. Alignment reform made the preexisting inequality of these two groups even more pronounced.

Despite its name, the Florida College and Career Readiness Initiative assumes that all students are motivated by a reform directed at college-bound goals. Teachers report that this is not the case, and their non-college bound students did not engage. The program magnifies the discrepant needs of these two groups of students. Future initiatives might benefit from including career-related features to reach students who, in their junior and senior years of high school, do not see themselves attending college.

KDP is proud to partner with Routledge to share Jiffy Lansing and colleagues’ article free with the education community through September 30, 2017. Read the full article here.