The Promise of Proficiency

Jack Byers

J.B. Schramm and E. Kinney Zalesne
Center For American Progress
December 2009

We wouldn’t ask doctors “to develop a cure for a disease [without] knowing how the cure is doing in clinical trials,” so why do we ask high schools to prepare kids for college without any data on how they do when they get there? Not a bad question, now posed by an able duo writing for CAP. Over the last several decades, postsecondary education has become more important to economic success, so high school's goal has evolved from merely graduating students to preparing them for college. Yet the data systems need to catch up. The stats we now collect--standardized test scores, high school grades, high school graduation rates--may be correlated with a high school’s success, but the data that students produce in college--enrollment rates, college grades, college graduation rates--actually prove success. This paper shows the difference, through a series of case studies of schools and districts that have improved their test scores only to find powerful anecdotal evidence that their students arrive still unprepared at the college gate. Yet the college data do exist; we just need to make sure that high schools get access to them. This is happening slowly as states start to track students from (public) high school through (public) colleges, as entrepreneurs offer high schools limited college tracking data (for a fee), and as Uncle Sam pushes for more improvement. To accelerate these reforms, the authors would like Washington to standardize data systems, hand out money to help schools collect and interpret data, and reward high schools that make gains in the college performance of their graduates. Such changes, they say, would go a distance toward making high schools more college-aware. The full report is available here.