New brief urges higher education, states to better align Common Core with higher ed practices

common-core-collegeCommon Core State Standards, which have been adopted by 43 states and the District of Columbia, are supposed to be the ultimate indicator for a student’s college readiness. But according to a new policy brief, Common Core stops at higher education’s gate, offering little to no benefit for a student’s chances of entering college.

The brief, “Common Core Goes to College: Building better connections between high school and higher education,” by Lindsey Tepe, program associate on the New America Foundation’s Education Policy Program, begins her brief with a powerful metaphor, linking the blunder of Chicago’s underground tunnel to what’s currently happening with the Common Core.

In 1989, after years of planning to connect two ends of one tunnel under Chicago, the two entities, which started building the tunnel at different points, realized that one side came in nine inches too low, and eight inches to the east of the other side’s connector point.

Like the Common Core, explains Tepe, if higher education’s policies don’t better align with K-12’s CCSS implementation, the nation-wide initiative will effectively become a road to nowhere.

“Careful analysis of state policies and practices reveals a higher education landscape riddled with complications and shortcomings for the successful alignment of higher education with the Common Core,” writes Tepe, “…including admissions, financial aid, retesting and course placement, and developmental education.

Also, little evidence suggests that colleges are meaningfully aligning college instruction with the standards, Tepe notes.

(Next page: 5 ways to better align higher education with Common Core)

1. Minimum standards for entrance.

According to Tepe, states that have implemented the CCSS will soon be determining what specific test score students will need to meet in order to demonstrate “college readiness.” However, most colleges and universities have not yet planned to include these scores as part of their minimum standards for student entrance.

Tepe explains that “less selective universities like Alabama State” use test scores primarily to establish minimum eligibility standards to avoid enrolling students likely to fail. Yet, many states are not considering integrating Common Core assessments with its admission criteria.

“For institutions that currently use ACT and SAT scores to establish minimum standards, expanding those standards to include Common Core assessment scores would provide an additional opportunity to demonstrate student readiness,” she writes. “A college-ready designation on the state-adopted, Common Core standards-aligned PARCC assessment should be sufficient to meet state minimum eligibility criteria for unconditional admission to the state’s public universities.”

Selective colleges like Harvard, who use test scores for sorting as a means to identify the best students among a much larger pool of students, should also use comparable scores on PARCC or Smarter Balanced as a sufficient substitute.

“If these assessments do not serve as a means for determining college readiness in minimum admissions policies, it will undermine the standards as a true proxy for college readiness,” she says.

2. Test scores for financial aid.

Some states’ postsecondary financial aid is need-based, but many states award aid based on academic merit, and many factors considered by colleges and universities in the admissions process are weighed for financial aid considerations, including high school, GPA, adherence to a “college preparatory” course load, and ACT and SAT scores, notes Tepe.

Therefore, where test scores are used as a proxy for college readiness to award financial aid, colleges and universities—as well as state governing boards—must allow students to demonstrate proficiency with the Common Core standards.

“However, as with admissions policies, few states have determined if, or how, they will integrate the new college-ready assessments into this critical area of higher education policy,” explains Tepe. “And for those states developing or using their own high school assessments, most remain separate and distinct from financial aid eligibility.”

3. Align college curriculum with Common Core.

According to Tepe, many of those within higher education were not involved in developing or endorsing the Common Core, and as a result, have not only not considered how they might change their own practices to better align, “many are not even aware of the Common Core.”

“While states have continued to take on increasingly greater roles in shaping K-12 education throughout the country, for a variety of reasons (including deep-seated principles of shared governance and academic freedom) public institutions of higher education have carried on, largely insulated from change,” says Tepe.

She notes that this is due in part to higher education not being based on scaffolded concepts of learning, like with K-12, and very often the content of college courses is developed with no awareness of K-12 expectations, or even those of other college-level courses.

“Thus, the Common Core standards appear at the moment to end at the college gate, representing the completion of an indistinct goal—‘college readiness’—rather than as another deliberate step on a student’s journey toward a college degree,” Tepe emphasizes.

(Next page: Ways 4-5)

4. Use as a measure for retesting and course placement.

In order to assess, sort and remediate under-prepared high school graduate students, anywhere from 28 to 40 percent of first-year undergraduates are enrolling in at least one developmental course; and at community colleges that percentage jumps to 50 percent.

“To have a substantive effect on course placement and to mitigate the need for retesting, the Common Core assessments need to contextualize their range of possible scores, both in terms of students’ mastery of specific content as well as their ability to succeed within the sequence of first-year coursework offered in colleges,” says Tepe.

To do this, states will need to decide upon more than a single cut-score for college readiness, and should also provide information on the types of first-year college-level coursework that students are prepared to take.

“For this information to be useful, public colleges and universities will need to adopt more consistent and reliable policies around placement decisions,” and “member states of the Common Core assessment consortia should work with test developers to provide additional information for college and university use in the course placement process.”

5. Align with teacher prep programs.

The final consideration for Common Core alignment is through teacher preparation programs, which as Tepe says, “With K-12 systems in 43 states and D.C. using these standards in their classrooms, the majority of teachers in this country will soon be required to teach based upon this framework.”

A recent Center on Education Policy (CEP) report revealed that of the 40 responding Common Core states, 35 reported that their postsecondary institutions are involved in preparing students in teacher prep programs to teach the Common Core; only 24 are planning to revise teacher prep curriculum to reflect the new standards; 17 indicated that they are planning to make entry requirements for the teacher prep program more rigorous; and 12 percent reported they were revising course requirements for a teaching degree to require more courses in subject matter content.

Tepe’s recommendation is that colleges and universities with teacher prep programs require the incorporation of the state’s college- and career-ready standards required coursework.

“To prepare students to succeed in college and beyond, the spirit of these standards—alignment—needs to go to college as well,” states Tepe. “And each state needs to plan how to ‘do it all in one piece’ if it is going to be a success.”

For much more detailed information and recommendations, read the full report.


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