This series of posts is adapted from a presentation given at a conference for new college presidents in the UNCF network.  See Part 1 and Part 2 on The Point.

In the first two parts of this series, we explored the question of how the United States is making progress in closing the preparation gap—whether we are preparing all students, particularly those historically underserved populations, for the academic rigors of postsecondary education and the kind of training programs required to access good careers.

Over the last twenty years, states have embarked on ambitious reform agendas to address this persistent challenge. And, it appears the culture around high expectations for all students is becoming more and more the norm in schools across America. But, underserved student populations—particularly low-income, minority, and prospective first-generation college students—are still lagging behind their peers in terms of preparation for and completion of postsecondary education and training.

Among the many policies states have implemented to close the preparation gap for all students, there are three that form the core: the implementation of college- and career-ready standards; aligned, high-quality K–12 assessment systems; and improved data and reporting systems. Together, this set of aligned policies can lead to transformative changes by setting clear, high expectations for all students and providing actionable, timely, and instructionally relevant information to educators and parents.

  • Implementation of college- and career-ready standards. Why? The standards clearly communicate what is expected of all students at each grade level and set the expectation that every student should have the opportunity to master content that prepares them for postsecondary education and good careers. They are a powerful tool to set foundational expectations for all schools and all classrooms.
  • Aligned, High-Quality K–12 assessments. Standards can sit on a shelf and not be taught. State assessments are intended as the “guarantor” of the standards. They serve as a mirror for state, district and school leaders, classroom teachers, communities, and students and their families. They can offer honest and important information about whether education systems are meeting their obligations to prepare all students for success. To do this, the tests need to measure the most important elements of the standards—not just the simplest concepts to test.
  • Improved data & reporting systems. District and school administrators, teachers, parents, and other stakeholders need clear, accessible, and understandable student and school-level reports. The data needs to be high-quality, reliable, and accurate. And, the reports need to provide context and comparative information to help stakeholders interpret the information.  For example, the assessment results should be accompanied by background information to help stakeholders have confidence that the performance levels on the test are benchmarked against college- and career-ready expectations, which will help them interpret what “proficient” actually means in terms of a child’s scores. Lastly, aggregated reports of school-, district-, and state-level results must break down reporting by important demographic characteristics so that equity and achievement gaps can be clearly understood—and acted upon.

Are these policies working? It’s been nearly seven years since states began implementing the Common Core, aligned assessments, and new reporting systems. The first high school students to take new Common Core-aligned state tests are now in their first year or two of postsecondary education.

The implementation of these reforms has been challenging work for policymakers and practitioners, but they still have the power to transform teaching and learning in measurable ways. The impact, though, has not yet been quantified because these reforms are still taking root in classrooms.  (For that reason, I am particularly looking forward to the findings of the multi-year evaluation of state standards implementation efforts by C-SAIL at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education, which includes a longitudinal analysis of student outcomes.)

These deep systemic changes take time, and educators need ongoing, consistent support and professional learning opportunities to incorporate new approaches to instruction, understand more rigorous assessments, and learn how to use the data to help target instruction to address students’ strengths and areas for improvement. That’s why we need sustained support from all stakeholders to keep the momentum focused on closing the preparation gap. That means paying attention to what happens in the classroom and investing in support for educators—including high-quality professional learning, instructional supports, classroom assessment materials, and communities of practice. The standards, tests, and reporting tools are an important foundation, but we need to invest time and resources to support the classroom educators in the trenches every day.

In future posts, we will explore in more depth some of the approaches to supporting educators’ implementation of rigorous, college- and career-ready standards for all students.

By Lesley Muldoon, Chief of Policy and Advocacy at CenterPoint Education Solutions