One of the most well-known obstacles to college completion in Washington is a lack of preparation, particularly in math. A new state council says a fix to the problem is coming soon. But one group of researchers warns that the state’s solution is a risky one that is generating controversy elsewhere.
First, some background: A high percentage of Washington’s high-school graduates fail to meet college standards for math and writing skills, deficiencies that are revealed when they take college placement tests. This is an especially common problem in community colleges, where more than 50 percent of incoming students require pre-college math classes — or developmental math — before they can advance to college-level math. And educators know that being assigned to developmental classes raise the risk that a student will drop out without ever finishing a degree.
Most educators agree that the problem ought to be fixed in high school, by making sure students are college-ready before they graduate. And one of the ways to do this is to test student skill levels in 11th grade, then use 12th grade for catch-up classes if needed.
The Washington Student Achievement Council, a new state agency that makes policy recommendations on higher education, embraces the idea of testing 11th graders, and using the senior year of high school to correct any deficiencies. The council believes the fix is already on its way; 11th grade tests are a part of the new Common Core academic standards, which are designed to prepare students for college or a job by the time they graduate from high school.
But researchers at the University of Pennsylvania are wary of using Common Core tests as the mechanism to find deficiencies because some states have backed away from Common Core in recent months, after raising questions about whether it’s superior to existing state standards.
“I think waiting on the Common Core, given the politics that have developed around that now, is a pretty risk strategy for linking K-12 and higher ed,” said Penn researcher Joni Finney, one of the authors of a report that makes a long list of recommendations for improving higher-education outcomes in Washington. Finney praised the state of Texas for developing its own rigorous 11th-grade tests, and starting to beta-test the exams now.
Gene Sharratt, the executive director of WSAC, argues that Common Core is being well-received in Washington. The state is working with the Smarter Balance Consortium to develop 11th-grade tests, which are expected to be ready for beta testing in the 2015-16 school year.
Sharratt sees a slightly different risk ahead. His worry: That colleges may decide Common Core standards do not align with their requirements for college-level subjects. Even if students pass the 11th-grade tests, they still may need to take developmental classes in college.