Imagine a group of high school seniors in cap and gown being congratulated for completing their state’s requirements to earn a high school diploma. Are they ready for college or a career? In some states, that depends on who you ask. Depending on where the student lives, a high school test score or fulfilled state curricular requirements may not be enough to convince colleges they’re ready to enroll. Colleges, high schools, and employers all have a stake in students graduating high school ready for college, but lack of a shared definition of readiness can complicate policy making and create barriers for students.

At a recent event at New America, Delaware Governor Jack Markell spoke about college readiness and Jobs for the Future’s Joel Vargas and Community College Research Center’s Elisabeth Barnett addressed the question of alignment of college readiness assessment in American high schools and colleges. The event also served as an introduction to Atlas, a new online mapping tool developed by New America’s Education Policy Program and presented by policy analyst Lindsey Tepe. Atlas visually depicts how college readiness is defined, assessed, and used across the country using publicly available data verified where possible by states’ Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) Flexibility Requests.

As it stands, only thirteen states have college course placement policies that are aligned with high school test results, meaning students’ scores from one assessment signal both college-readiness to their high schools and their colleges. Seven states have partially aligned course placement policies, which could mean that state colleges require students to take a course placement exam that differs from required high school exams designed to assess college readiness, unless they’ve achieved a certain score on the required assessment taken in high school.

Twenty-three states simply have no college course placement policy at all, and eight states have placement policies that are not aligned with high school assessment, which could mean that the state requires no college-readiness assessment in high school but does require students to submit satisfactory college-readiness assessment scores to be placed into college-level classes. Quite literally all over the map at this point, disparate policies within and across states are affecting students’ access to college and college-level coursework upon completion of high school.

Disjointed standards based on different ideas of college readiness could lead to some newly-minted high school graduates ending up with a crisp, new diploma in one hand and apologetic rejection letters or lists of extra course requirements from colleges in their state in the other, an eventuality that Delaware, for one, is working to prevent. In his remarks, Governor Markell described his state’s efforts to use the Common Core-aligned Smarter Balanced math and English language arts test to assess students’ college readiness in 11th grade. Those scores are then used by colleges for course placement. A high enough Smarter Balanced score means that a student won’t be required to take costly and time-consuming remedial classes in college.

For students who don’t meet the Smarter Balanced test’s readiness standards, the assessment provides good indicators for where improvements can be made, as Elisabeth Barnett pointed out in her comments during the discussion. Knowing where they stand in 11th grade gives students the opportunity to pursue other means of demonstrating readiness while still in high school. High schools may offer students opportunities like “transition courses” in 12th grade or other classes specifically designed with preparation for college-level work in mind. A passing grade in a transition class guarantees placement into college-level coursework, just as a high enough Smarter Balanced score would do. With multiple chances to develop and prove their college readiness, students are better positioned for success when they head to campus after high school.

However, the use of state assessments can also create unique challenges for school systems. In the case of the Smarter Balanced test, using Common Core-aligned readiness assessments in 11th grade leaves educators responsible for figuring out the best ways to maximize students’ senior year.

For Joel Vargas, the resulting potential changes to the value of 12th grade for those who have demonstrated readiness and those who haven’t make things tricky. Focus shouldn’t rest on avoiding remedial coursework for students who aren’t ready for college and accelerating students who are ready, he said. Teachers should be working to accelerate both groups forward. Senior year can be a critical point of exposure to career options and use of curriculum that both high schools and colleges view as bolstering college readiness, something he sees as a shared responsibility between K-12 and higher education. Graduating seniors are, Vargas said, “the same students who show up on [colleges’] doors three months later.” Barnett stressed the importance of keeping seniors engaged, especially college-ready seniors who have already determined their next steps after high school and may be tempted to take it easy in 12th grade. Pre-college and dual enrollment opportunities can offer seniors the challenge of more advanced coursework they need to keep their academic momentum.

While their peers begin college-level classes right away, what about students whose high school test scores and coursework don’t signal readiness for college classes? Panelists made clear the reason so much effort has gone into preparing students for college-level work: high school students who head to campus without demonstrating readiness for college have a much more difficult road ahead of them. Barnett spoke bluntly about the relationship between remedial classes in college and graduation. “If you start out in remedial education, you don’t have a great shot,” she said, echoing Governor Markell’s earlier statement that being unable to complete college after beginning is the “worst of all worlds, when you’ve had to go into debt to pay for these classes and then you don’t get the degree at the end of the road.”

Knowing of the connection between remedial education and failure to graduate, how can schools, colleges, and policymakers help students enter directly into college-level work? Vargas recommended that colleges use a passing score from any state readiness assessment for college placement purposes. “We should use these assessments to maximize access,” he said, encouraging leaders to “lean toward which [assessments] say you’re college-ready and then honor that,” he argued.

Acknowledging that doing so will be complicated, the panelists nonetheless expressed hope that alignment of standards and use of assessment will continue to remove barriers for students. Though, as Vargas put it, we may not yet know exactly “which levers to pull” in the area of alignment to maximize progress, existing programs built on K-12 and postsecondary collaboration, such as early college, point to the possibility that aligned assessment and standards can clear and mark the path to higher education for many students who stand to benefit.

This article originally appeared in New America’s online magazine, the Weekly Wonk.

[Cross-posted at Ed Central]

Ivy Love

Ivy Love is a doctoral student in Higher Education Administration at Saint Louis University. She is an intern with the Education Policy Program at New America.