Jacqueline King

Most attention to the Common Core State Standards has focused on the continued political backlash against the standards and the status of implementation in schools. As we look ahead to next spring when students will take assessments that indicate whether they are on track to college and career readiness, we are seeing some attention begin to focus on the role of higher education (see New America’s paper on this topic and a story from the Hechinger Report). Unfortunately, the takeaway from these sources and others is that higher education has mostly been watching from the sidelines and that it has been difficult in many places for K-12 and higher education to overcome decades of entrenched habits and work productively together.

It would be easy to conclude that greater cooperation (and improved alignment) between K–12 and higher education is “mission impossible,” given the differences in structure and culture between the two sectors. But I have been deeply involved in efforts to create greater academic alignment between K–12 and higher education for almost a decade — first at the American Council on Education and now at the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium — and I see more reasons for optimism than pessimism. Here’s why.

  • There is a growing list of large-scale K-12/higher education cooperative efforts. Well before Common Core, there were great examples of K–12 and higher education working together to define common academic expectations for students and create a more seamless pathway between the two sectors. California has long been a leader in this regard, dating to the 1960 Master Plan for Higher Education that resulted in consistent admission standards for the three public segments through the launch in 2006 of the Early Assessment Program (EAP), a joint effort of the California State University (CSU), California Department of Education, and California State Board of Education to assess student readiness for credit-bearing courses during Grade 11 and help students use the senior year to address any academic deficiencies. The results have been dramatic; the proportion of first-year students meeting CSU placement standards in English and math has increased from 44 percent in 2007 to 57 percent in 2013. EAP is the model for college readiness policies established by both the Smarter Balanced and PARCC assessment consortia.
  • Faculty helped write the standards. Initial involvement from higher education faculty was deep but insufficiently broad, so when I was at the American Council on Education, we organized an effort to bring more faculty into the discussion. As a result, the Conference Board on the Mathematical Sciences, an umbrella group for the many scholarly organizations in math and statistics, endorsed the standards based on the recommendation of a broadly diverse committee that it convened. In English, The Modern Language Association also convened a committee to provide feedback on standards for teaching English. While the association did not ultimately endorse the standards, the recommendations of that committee resulted in a number of important changes to the standards.
  • Faculty generally agree with the standards. The Education Policy Improvement Center asked 1,800 faculty who teach introductory courses in an array of disciplines to review the standards and decide whether they describe the knowledge and skills students need to succeed in their courses. Across the board, more than 80 percent of faculty agreed that the standards are an accurate reflection of the knowledge and skills needed for success in introductory college courses. Anyone who has worked in higher education knows that it is remarkable when more than 80 percent of faculty agree on anything!
  • Teacher preparation programs are changing to reflect the standards. Colleges of education — and their accrediting organization — recognize that teachers must be prepared to help students meet the higher expectations articulated by the Common Core. In California, the higher education system is aligning its teacher preparation standards and assessments with the Common Core standards. In addition, higher education is providing professional development and ongoing teacher support aligned to the Common Core standards.
  • Higher education leaders are voicing their support. In early June, Higher Ed for Higher Standards debuted. This website spotlights several hundred higher education leaders who have lent their names to a statement of support for college and career ready standards and aligned assessments. CSU Chancellor Tim White co-authored an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education with university leaders from Maryland and New York arguing that Common Core presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to dramatically increase the number of students ready to succeed in college and the workplace.
  • Higher education will help set assessment performance standards. This fall, higher education faculty and administrators will join with K–12 educators to recommend the performance standards (or “cut scores”) on the new Smarter Balanced assessments that will indicate whether students are on track to readiness for entry-level, credit-bearing college courses. Further, higher education leaders will vote with their K–12 counterparts on these standards for the high school assessments, providing further validation that the assessments are adequately rigorous to measure college readiness. These steps — along with the involvement of higher education faculty in the development of the assessments — will help ensure that these new assessments accurately measure student preparation for success in entry-level, credit-bearing college courses and career education programs.
  • Parents and students will soon demand change. Looking back at what we have accomplished, I see many reasons for optimism. I am even more encouraged as I look ahead. K–12 educators have taken a courageous step. They have agreed to reset the bar by which they are judged. No longer will it be enough that students display the basic skills necessary for a high school diploma. Schools will be judged based on the proportion of students who graduate ready for college and the high-performance workplace. When students meet that bar, they — and their parents — will demand that higher education recognize their accomplishment in a meaningful way, both by guaranteeing them placement into credit-bearing courses and by ensuring that those introductory courses build on what they have learned in high school. There is much work to do to find an appropriate balance between the consistent expectations that schools and students need and the diverse institutional missions and curricula that higher education values. But no longer will any of us be able to claim that working together is “mission impossible.”

Jacqueline King has been director, higher education collaboration for the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium since 2011. Previously, she spent 15 years at the American Council on Education where she established the ACE Center for Policy Analysis. The original version of this article was published by the New American Foundation.

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