Twenty-one high schools in four states are working this fall to restructure their academic programs into “lower division” and “upper division” courses that are aimed at readying all students for community college by the end of their sophomore year.
Students who pass a series of exams, at that point, could leave high school and enroll—without remedial courses—in a two-year college, or stay in high school to take additional technical coursework, or pursue studies that prepare them for a university.
The approach, modeled after “board-examination systems” in use in such countries as England, is part of a pilot program announced Monday by the National Center on Education and the Economy, a Washington-based advocacy group.
The 21 schools in Arizona, Connecticut, Kentucky, and Mississippi have agreed to choose from specified packages of curricula and exams. For the lower division, in a student’s first two years, schools may use the ACT’s QualityCore program or the University of Cambridge’s International general-level program. For the upper division, schools may choose junior- and senior-level courses from ACT QualityCore, the Cambridge International A and AS level programs, the International Baccalaureate program, or the College Board’s Advanced Placement International Diploma Program. The programs include English/language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and the arts.
Marc S. Tucker, the NCEE’s president, said the idea is to ensure that every student acquires, at a minimum, the skills needed to succeed in community college, opening the possibility of proceeding smoothly into a variety of pathways offering good wages or more training.
He acknowledged that some view such a system, with its midway-point decisions, as tracking students with lesser skills into less-ambitious pathways. But he contended it’s the opposite.
“Tracking happens when educators provide kids with different curriculums with different challenge levels based on assumptions about their capacity,” he said. “This denies them opportunities. We are finding out what it takes to be successful in community college and making sure every child can reach that standard before they leave high school, so they can choose from all available options. That doesn’t close down opportunities; it expands them.”
Students can pass lower-division exams when they are ready, Mr. Tucker added. Those who don’t pass the first time will be given additional support to retake them. Likewise, schools will provide tutoring and other supports for incoming freshmen with weak academic skills, according to the NCEE’s outline of the pilot. Each school will determine how 9th grade readiness will be assessed, but many will be able to use statewide tests given in 8th grade as an indicator, he said. Teachers will also be trained in the new curricula their schools adopt, and NCEE staff members will work with the schools as they implement the new programs.
A key piece of the approach is that passage of lower-division exams will serve as a passport to skip remedial courses in community college. The two-year colleges that serve the 21 schools have agreed to that in principle, Mr. Tucker said, but a technical-advisory committee still must determine the cutoff scores on each set of exams that correspond to readiness for credit-bearing community college coursework.
The pilot program came in for praise from Kati Haycock, the president of Education Trust, a Washington-based group that presses for better opportunities for disadvantaged students and has raised alarms in the past about tracking. She commended the use of one challenging curriculum for all students, saying that too often, a “different” approach for some means a lesser course of study.
“What I like here is that the core idea is the same rich curriculum for all kids, with extra supports where it’s needed,” Ms. Haycock said. “It’s high-end stuff for all kids, and that’s job number one.”
Reflecting an ongoing argument in the field, Ms. Haycock did take issue with the program’s inherent assumption that students need different skills for two-year colleges than they do for broad-access four-year colleges. The ACT’s own research, she noted, has found the same skills are required for credit-bearing work in both types of institutions.
Schools in the pilot face a big stumbling block in trying to get all their freshmen up to speed quickly, said Mel Riddile, the associate director of high school services for the National Association of Secondary School Principals, based in Reston, Va.
“How do you bring all the other kids along—the kids learning English, special education students, the kids whose skills aren’t strong?” said Mr. Riddile, who led two Virginia high schools before joining the leadership of NASSP. “You have to go all the way back into middle school to make sure your kids are entering 9th grade prepared for what they’ve got in mind here. You can’t wait until they walk into high school to offer supports.”
As principal of JEB Stuart High School in Falls Church, Va., from 1996 to 2006, Mr. Riddile offered all students the IB program. It took years of steady work with the feeder middle schools to enable even half his students to be ready for it, he said.
“I’d guess this [pilot] will take five to seven years of work to get most kids coming into 9th grade with the needed skills,” Mr. Riddile said. “In the short term, they need massive supports in 9th grade. You literally need to hold these kids’ hands to make up for the resource deficit they’ve had.”
Eight states had originally agreed to involve 10 to 20 schools each in the pilot program, but fiscal constraints downsized the program. Some of the money was to come from a $350 million Race to the Top grant assessment program, but the NCEE’s group did not win part of that money. That, combined with increasingly austere state budget situations, prompted Maine, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Vermont to withdraw. Arizona and Mississippi then joined the effort.