Failing College: Why We Must Align High School Curriculum with College Expectations

May 02, 2006 (PRLEAP.COM) Education News
Millions of high school seniors have signed college acceptance letters as of May 1, but does making it into college ensure academic success and a degree?

A new Policy Perspectives paper from WestEd argues that high schools and colleges haven't aligned their separate education systems enough to eliminate college remedial work, decrease college dropout rates, and speed the time toward earning a baccalaureate degree.

In /What We Must Do to Create a System That Prepares for College Success/, David T. Conley, founder and director of the University of Oregon's Center for Educational Policy Research, outlines the alarming indicators of a system that is not functioning as efficiently as it could:

* between 30 and 60 percent of students now require remedial college courses, an increase over previous years,
* for those who make it to college graduation, on average it now takes six years to earn a four-year college degree, and
* while more companies now expect a college degree as a baseline for employment, the percentage of high school students who go on to earn bachelor's degrees has remained relatively constant over the past 25 years.

"If we are to address such problems," says Conley, "it's going to take a coordinated, concerted reform effort involving all stakeholders — policymakers, high school educators, college faculty and administrators, parents, and students."

Conley proposes several actions to smooth the transition between high school and college and ensure academic success:

1. States should align high school exit exams and other state assessments with college success standards so that scores on state tests also provide diagnostic information to students about their college readiness.

2. College campuses should utilize placement tests that are consistent across campuses and clearly connected with success in entry-level coursework, and then communicate to high schools the content, the cut scores, and the justification for these tests.

3. College and high school faculty should collaborate more, sharing course materials and student work across institutions.

4. High schools should prepare students for the independent, self-motivated learning environment they will encounter in college, and create environments that develop the intellectual maturity of secondary students in areas such as critical thinking, analytic thinking, persistence, and inquisitiveness.

5. High school students should learn how to actively monitor their own knowledge and skills and seek courses that ask more of them in writing, reasoning, research, and other key areas required in college.

6. Parents should be familiar with the general expectations for knowledge, skill, and work quality that their high school children should demonstrate to be college ready. For those parents for whom this is challenging or impossible, high schools should make a greater effort to make these determinations and to communicate to parents regarding their children's readiness for college.

According to Conley, such changes would send a consistent message to high school students about what they should be doing to prepare for college success, rather than setting up students for possible failure in a poorly aligned K-16 education system.

A free PDF download of this Policy Perspectives paper is available at


David T. Conley is professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Oregon and director of the Center for Educational Policy Research. He was the executive director of the Oregon University System's Proficiency-based Admission Standards System (PASS). He currently conducts studies for the College Board to validate standards in the SAT, PSAT, and AP tests. He authored /College Knowledge: What It Really Takes for Students to Succeed and What We Can Do to Get Them Ready/, published by Jossey-Bass/A Wiley Imprint, from which this Policy Perspectives paper was excerpted.

WestEd, a national nonprofit research, development, and service agency, works with education and other communities to promote excellence, achieve equity, and improve learning for children, youth, and adults. WestEd has 15 offices nationwide, from Washington and Boston to Arizona and California. Its corporate headquarters are in San Francisco. More information about WestEd is available at