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Waiver Watch: What is College-Ready and Who Gets to Decide?

Published:  October 3, 2012
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Flickr photo by Gates Foundation.

It goes without saying these days that there is a lot of angst around Common Core implementation among state officials, local administrators, educators, and policy insiders. Many worry about the kinds of questions that will be on the new assessments, the quality of instructional materials, curricula, and training for teachers, the lack of technical capacity to handle online testing, and the possibility that federal involvement in Common Core will erode state political support. These are all significant, valid concerns within the K-12 community.

But no matter how well these issues are addressed, Common Core implementation faces a final challenge: how does higher education respond? After all, if Common Core aims to reflect “the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers,” then the real test is whether Common Core mastery is seen as legitimate and sufficient preparation within higher education.

Thanks to the Department of Education’s ESEA waivers, this test is already happening. As I’ve written previously, states had to demonstrate adoption of college- and career-ready standards to secure ESEA flexibility. States could meet the bar in two ways: through Common Core or through standards approved by the state’s postsecondary institutions, which certify that students meeting the standards will not need college remediation. Last week, Bellwether's Chad Aldeman examined two recent requests based on the latter option, Alaska and Puerto Rico. Both waivers come up short. Postsecondary institutions support the standards, but not where it counts: policy. Neither assures that students meeting the K-12 standards will enter directly into college-level courses.

But what will encourage states to change remediation policy? It’s clearly not a waiver requirement. In November, Minnesota submitted a nearly-identical letter from its postsecondary leaders to certify the state’s math standards. But the letter admitted Minnesota lacks “any empirical evidence that students who master those standards do not require remediation in higher education." Isn’t that the point? They may say that standards mastery will lead to college-level work, but Minnesota failed to take any real action to guarantee it. Still, the Department approved the waiver request... and will likely do the same with Alaska and Puerto Rico. 

College- and career-ready standards, Common Core or otherwise, are only meaningful if they’re accepted by higher education and legitimized through the admissions and remedial placement process. Unfortunately, postsecondary institutions remain on the periphery of Common Core implementation, even as states begin to link high school exit exams to college readiness standards. The ongoing development of college- and career-ready assessments has allowed institutions to delay making decisions about how they will treat the new standards. But justified delay can become indistinguishable from unjustified avoidance.

Fortunately, not all states are waiting. In 2009, Kentucky adopted statewide performance indicators for readiness that translate from K-12 to higher education and are used to make remedial placement decisions in all public colleges and universities. Placement exams are where college readiness meets reality. No matter the assessment used, these measures serve as significant barriers to entry in higher education – with students identified for remediation much less likely to complete their degree. Since Kentucky requires high school students to take the ACT, many indicators are based on those benchmarks now, but can be updated to include the Common Core assessments in time.

Instead of avoiding the issue and defining readiness on an institution-by-institution basis, more states should follow Kentucky’s lead and adopt uniform performance standards for K-12 and higher education. And the Department can help by raising the bar for states to demonstrate their standards are certified by postsecondary institutions in both ESEA waivers and its ESEA reauthorization Blueprint. Otherwise, the tremendous efforts to implement college- and career-ready standards by governors, chief state school officers, the assessment consortia, and educators, may be for naught. Without concrete state policies, higher education will continue to decide – as they always have – what college readiness really means. 


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