By Ryan Reyna, The Line

Ryan leads ESG’s efforts to build bridges between K-12 and higher education to promote seamless postsecondary transitions for students, especially those from traditionally underserved populations. He also supports the efforts of states to develop and implement accountability systems that meaningfully measure students’ college and career readiness.


Remarkably, more than half of incoming community college students, and approximately 20% of incoming students at four-year institutions, are academically unprepared when they arrive on campus. And traditional remediation efforts designed to get those students up to speed are failing as well.

Fewer than one in 10 students who enroll in remedial coursework in community college will attain a degree within three years. That’s a pretty dismal batting average. And it’s particularly troubling given that community colleges and regional public universities are the points of entry for a large number of traditionally underrepresented students. What’s more, remedial coursework costs students and families across the country approximately $1.3 billion annually.

Remediation stands as the most significant hurdle for closing postsecondary attainment gaps, especially for traditionally underserved student populations. Waiting to address the issue until a student matriculates is a significant missed opportunity. K-12 and higher education leaders need to work together to create an opportunity for students to “catch up” on their academic skills while in high school so that they can place directly into credit-bearing coursework when they start college. When students are academically prepared when they arrive at postsecondary institutions, they are more likely to complete a degree or certificate. This is especially true for students of color and those from low-income families.

If remediation is the largest barrier to increasing students’ postsecondary success, shouldn’t they receive the extra supports needed to successfully transition to college sooner?

At Education Strategy Group, we’re working with states across the country to use the 12th grade year to design and scale postsecondary “transition” courses that provide students opportunity to work on critical skills they have not yet mastered. These courses are already making a difference in several states across the country. In Tennessee, for example, Chattanooga State Community College launched the SAILS (Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support) program to deliver remedial math courses to high school seniors. Through SAILS, 11th graders who score lower than 19 on the ACT receive math instruction that is designed and endorsed by community colleges. Upon successful completion, students may enter directly into credit-bearing courses in college.

In six years, the SAILS program expanded from one high school to serve more than 50,000 students statewide, with a 92% course passage rate. Over that same period, Tennessee’s math remediation rate decreased by 15% and its college enrollment rate increased by more than 5%. Tennessee sees an annual savings of $64 million as a result of the SAILS program.

Other states including Texas and Washington are making similar strides. In Texas, the Transition to College Mathematics (TCM) course began in 18 high schools. Results have showed that students’ use of noncognitive skills, i.e. self-regulation, persistence and self-efficacy, increased during the first half of the year and remained stable for the second half. Across all participating districts, 61% of TCM students met the state’s college readiness benchmark after completing the course, which is significantly higher than similar students who did not enroll in the course.

In Washington, students who took the state’s Bridge to College math and English courses were more likely to enroll in first-year college courses than their peers who did not take the transition courses. Additionally, students whose state assessment scores did not meet the college readiness mark in 11th grade and took the transition math or English course outperformed their peers in math and English grades during their first year in college.

These successes are evidence of the effectiveness of transition courses, yet there remain challenges to growing the effort across the country. Getting K-12 and higher education to work together is, perhaps, the greatest obstacle. Too often, these systems put students in silos instead of considering how they can collaborate across K-12 and higher education to help students be successful. But that’s beginning to change with new standards of accountability that compel K-12 to consider whether students are prepared for college and career. And in the higher ed space, there’s much more focus on how to better support first-year students. Still, the availability of resources and capacity to prioritize collaboration seem to get in the way.

Education Strategy Group, in collaboration with over 20 other national K-12 and higher education organizations in the Level Up coalition, is advocating for greater partnership between K-12 and higher education by demonstrating the benefit to both systems. We are working to share the results — and lessons learned — from places like Tennessee, Texas and Washington that have devised ways to speed along students’ progress into postsecondary credit-bearing coursework. And we are actively making recommendations on how other states can start transition courses, as well as a host of other critical strategies for increasing student success. To stop remediation before it starts, we recommend:

  • Co-develop 12th grade postsecondary transition course(s) to serve students likely to need remedial supports. K-12 and higher education leaders should create a cross-sector workgroup of educators to define student learning objectives, identify appropriate curricula and assessments, propose professional development requirements, and recommend specific implementation supports. As math often is the greatest challenge to postsecondary readiness, states should work to develop transition courses in math first. For the course to have currency for students, higher education leaders must take appropriate steps to guarantee that any student that successfully completes the course can place directly into credit-bearing coursework.
  • Use multiple measures for identification of students to enroll in transition courses. Drawing upon emerging research in higher education about the benefits of using multiple measures to determine students’ postsecondary readiness for course placement, states can use multiple measures in K-12 as well to identify students to enroll in the transition course(s). All students who score below the college-ready level on higher-education validated assessment(s), or have demonstrated challenge in completing college-ready level coursework, should receive the opportunity to enroll in courses in 12th grade that solidify their knowledge in core areas and expose them to the skills necessary for success in higher education.
  • Recognize completion of transition course as meeting state graduation requirements. In states that require students to pass specific assessments or demonstrate postsecondary readiness to graduate, passage of the transition course should signal students’ readiness in the particular subject. For instance, in Texas, students are required to pass the Texas Success Initiative (TSI) Assessment prior to graduation. Recently, the state recognized that a student passing its postsecondary transition course in mathematics was equivalent to passage of the TSI Assessment, providing multiple opportunities for students to demonstrate their preparation for their next step beyond high school.
  • Develop and invest in a statewide strategy for scaling catch-up programs in all high schools, starting with those serving large numbers of underserved students. K-12 and higher education leaders should develop a long-term strategy for scaling the courses statewide. The plan should be grounded in data analysis — examining and addressing gaps in specific content areas, regions of the state, and groups of students – and set specific short-, medium- and long-term goals for the number of students served. States will need to invest time and resources — from new technologies to educator training to tuition and materials for postsecondary coursework – to scale these strategies, so it is critical that the plan identifies a sustainable funding strategy.
  • Communicate with students and families about the status of student transitions and the availability of supports. Students and parents need timely and actionable information on students’ readiness for postsecondary coursework. Too often, preparation perceptions do not align with the reality of student performance. This lack of alignment can lead to students — especially first-generation students – internalizing that they are “not college material.” K-12 and higher education leaders must educate students and parents about the expectations for college readiness, the realities of student performance, and the availability of supports to help all students make a successful transition to postsecondary education.

Providing students who need to catch up an opportunity to fill gaps in their academic preparation before leaving high school holds tremendous promise. Ultimately, it is our goal that every community and state have a clear strategy for ensuring students seamlessly transition to higher education without the need for remediation. We are actively partnering with states, such as Indiana, to bring that vision to reality. And we are excited to collaborate with the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas and Achieve on a new initiative, Launch Years, to develop and scale these supports in even more states.

If you are ready to lock arms with your higher education colleagues for student success, let us know. We stand prepared to share our lessons learned and offer our assistance in designing and scaling strategies that bridge the divide between K-12 and higher education.


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