A college readiness tool that every district should use

Throughout his tenure as superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, my good friend Jerry Weast used StudentTracker to help develop the course of studies that students would need in order to graduate from high school, attend college, and earn a degree. He did it by reverse-engineering data he obtained from the NSC about his graduates who earned a college degree. Looking at the high school records of students who successfully graduated from college enabled Weast to develop a curriculum for his schools to meet much higher standards than what Maryland required.

Any superintendent who wants to prepare his or her students not only to graduate from high school, but also to enter college and earn a degree, easily could replicate this exercise. Only StudentTracker has the data to make this exercise possible.

The NSC established a Research Center in 2010 to help institutions effectively use these rich data sets. I am proud to serve as the Research Center’s chairman. Having earned a Ph.D. in educational research from Hofstra University, I was eager to accept this role knowing that the center would be a valuable asset to policy makers as well as education leaders in making data-driven decisions.

To date, the center has issued a number of reports, including the first annual high school benchmark study: High School Benchmarks: National College Progression Rates. The study, released in October, reinforces the point that poverty is the variable with the biggest impact on the achievement gap.

Using data from high schools participating in StudentTracker, the report provides high-school-to-college transition rates. Participating schools were from all 50 states and from most of the 100 largest school districts, representing about one-quarter of all high school graduates. The population is divided into six categories according to income, minority, and geographic characteristics.

AASA previously has asserted that K-12 schools with a high percentage of low-income students have the lowest achievement rates. Conversely, schools with fewer low-income students have the highest achievement rates. The NSC research report verifies that these findings continue into postsecondary years: College enrollment rates are lowest for high schools with a high percentage of low-income students, defined as schools where at least 50 percent of the students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch.

On average, only 50 percent of low-income students from rural schools go on to college, and only 53 percent of students from low-income, high-minority urban schools do. Yet 70 percent of the graduates from higher-income, low-minority urban schools enter college.

The Research Center also uncovered “outliers,” or high schools that defy demographic patterns and achieve well beyond expectations. The current report does not identify these schools, but they prove that low-income children can learn. Hopefully these schools will be identified in future reports and will become models for what works.

We already know the benefits of early childhood education on low-income students, followed by wrap-around support services in the elementary and high school years. But many high schools are now collaborating with postsecondary institutions to provide their students with college-level experiences that allow them to earn college credits and the motivation to enroll and thrive in college. Guidance in financial aid is also critical for low-income students, who often aren’t aware of the scholarships and financial aid packages that are available.

The National Student Clearinghouse has been providing vital services to postsecondary institutions for two decades, and now it’s poised to be a valuable asset to the K-12 world. Every high school should take advantage of the StudentTracker service to shape its curriculum to better prepare students for college success. That’s the only way I can see us meeting President Obama’s goal of leading the world in the percentage of college graduates by 2020.

Daniel A. Domenech is executive director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA).

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