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Kathleen O'Toole, News Service (650) 725-1939; e-mail:

Higher education needs greater involvement in school reform, legislators told

California's new academic assessment program calls for 400-minute-long tests of each student in grades 2 through 11, yet a third of Palo Alto High School students did not take the tests last year. "Many of the good students blow it off," says Stanford education Professor Michael Kirst, "because they know it's the SAT that counts for college admission."

More than half the U.S. population now lives in states that have 11th grade assessment tests stringent enough to measure student performance at the Scholastic Aptitude Test level or above. But until colleges and universities begin to use these state test results for admissions or placement decisions, high school students won't be motivated to prepare for them, Kirst told lawmakers meeting at Stanford Sept. 30-Oct. 2.

Legislators from 15 states came to strategize on how to prod colleges and universities to join the K-12 school reform movement and turn it into a K-16 coordinated effort. Sponsored by the National Conference of State Legislatures, the institute was hosted by the School of Education, the U.S. Department of Education and three national organizations involved in school reform: the Education Commission of the States, the Consortium for Policy Research in Education and the Institute for Educational Leadership. The organizations have been gathering evidence that a spate of state school reforms enacted recently may not improve high school student performance unless they are accompanied by substantial changes in higher education.

Kirst, Kati Haycock of Education Trust and Susan Fuhrman, dean of the University of Pennsylvania's education school, opened the institute by outlining research on the disconnection between K-12 and higher education. Unlike most countries, the United States developed a public and private higher education system that operates independently of K-12, often under different oversight at the state and federal levels, they said. Indeed, many of the legislators at the session were chairs of committees that were separately designated as responsible for K-12 or higher education.

New teachers usually take national certification exams that are not as tough in subject content areas as the tests high school students now take in the leading reform states, Fuhrman said. "The university as a whole has to take responsibility for teacher development. This is not a job for education schools alone."

"Kids find high school boring," said Haycock of Education Trust, a national organization involved with school reform projects in 17 states. "It's the school period of least intellectual growth because we demand what most countries demand in junior high." Yet more stringent tests won't help if employers and higher education ignore the results, she said.

In California's Cal State college system, almost half of newly admitted freshmen are placed in remedial courses, as are many students in community colleges, said Kirst, who heads a Stanford team that is researching college admission, placement and high school outreach practices. "When we interview these students, many say, 'We thought we were ready; we never heard of this placement test.' There is a clear lack of information about what standards they have to meet to do college work," he told legislators. The exception is students competing for places in the top academic schools, which require high scores on the Scholastic Aptitude Test II, the harder of the SAT tests used by college admissions officers.

In the southern United States, Kirst added, one research group found 125 combinations of 75 different college placement tests in use by colleges; this makes it difficult for teachers to advise students on what will be expected of them.

"College presidents and system heads are starting to get beaten up about high levels of remediation," Haycock said, which may make them more receptive to change. But she urged the legislators to make "aggressive state policy because voluntary action has its limits."

Penn's Fuhrman suggested that states develop teacher certification tests in subject content areas that are at least as hard as those for high school students. Concerned about their reputations, both public and private universities that train teachers will pay attention if their graduates start failing certification tests, she said. At Penn, eight university departments, including chemistry and engineering, are now working with the education school to offer joint degrees for teachers as a way of improving their content preparation, she said.

Fuhrman also suggested that state legislatures offer incentives to improve in-service teacher training. "People purchase one-shot workshops" for teachers, she said, whereas studies suggest a minimum of 100 hours is necessary in a subject area to improve teaching. In working with teachers on improving their teaching, Haycock said her organization has found that many can't change their style of teaching a subject because they don't understand the subject deeply enough themselves.

Haycock urged states to make their high school graduation requirements as tough as their community college placement tests. In California, the 11th grade test is difficult enough to measure performance beyond that of the average college freshman, Kirst said, but much lower levels of performance are required for graduation.

Legislators from several states questioned the impact of such high graduation standards on students who plan to go straight into jobs.

Haycock countered that 72 percent of high school graduates go on to some college work immediately and another 10 percent go later. "When you look at reports from business and higher education, there are very few differences in what they want. All occupation-bound students need the same courses in math and language arts as the college-bound."

The Stanford institute was designed to open a two-year project by the national organizations to assist state legislators in implementing K-16 coordination reforms.


By Kathleen O'Toole

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