How Well do Your Graduates do After High School?

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Fast forward to high school graduation season and think of a graduation ceremony near you.

The auditorium gradually fills with camera-toting parents. The band plays Pomp and Circumstance. Commencement speeches get delivered. Diplomas get handed out and, finally, graduation caps get tossed into the air in a display of collective relief that high school – that crucial last leg of the formal pre-college education experience – is done.

But how well was it done?

That’s the question that College Summit, a college access organization that works with schools to create a “college-going culture,” wants youth workers, nonprofit leaders, educators and others to ponder long after youths have walked across the stage and into the world of higher education and the workforce. How well those youths do in college and careers will reflect how well they were prepared for those tasks during their teenage years.

In a report released Thursday, The Promise of Proficiency: How College Proficiency Information Can Help Schools Drive Student Success, College Summit concludes that those who work with youths during this critical period should take a keener interest in using certain data to gain a better sense of how well they prepared those youths for “Year 13” and beyond. That includes college enrollment data and information about the rate at which high school graduates complete at least one year of college credit courses within two years.

“I think the big message is: We need to do a lot better job of using data and research to identify best practices and applying those to helping students achieve at higher rates with a higher quality education,” said U.S. Under Secretary of Education Martha J. Kanter, speaking Thursday at the D.C.-based Center for American Progress during a panel discussion that focused on the report.

It’s a message that panelist Charles Thomas, principal of Crossland High School in Temple Hills, Md., and a College Summit partner, has taken to heart.

Thomas spoke of a student named Destiny whom he assumed would fare well in college based on her performance in high school and her membership in the school’s “Academic Hall of Fame.” But once she entered college, according to Thomas and the College Summit report, Destiny struggled academically while other youths seemed to breeze through the material.

 “I felt personally responsible for that,” Thomas said, “because as a principal, I think it’s my responsibility to make sure when my kids graduate, they’re prepared for what comes next.

“I knew if a kid like Destiny was struggling [in college], most of our kids were struggling.”

Thomas discussed a change his school made that is particularly instructive for any organization that works with youths. The change was built from the idea that if you want to achieve a particular goal, start measuring how well you’re achieving it.

In high school, he said, “what gets measured gets done,” so he implanted changes to start measuring the number of youths who do well on Advanced Placement exams, instead of just exposing youths to Advanced Placement courses and hoping it makes a difference.

In past years, he said, the percentage of youths who passed the AP exams, which are considered a key indicator of college readiness, has hovered around 2 or 3 percent. This year, Thomas predicted, 15 percent of the school’s youths will pass.

How does he know? “What gets measured gets done,” he said, repeating his earlier words to drive home his point that this is an axiom, not an assertion.

The Promise of Proficiency Report calls for the federal government to help schools measure how well their graduates do in college. It says the federal government should:

  • Support the gathering of college proficiency data by school, so that each school can see how its students fare in “Year 13,” or the first year after college.
  • Disseminate the data and empower educators to interpret the information and lead relevant programmatic change.
  • Support and reward high schools for progress in college proficiency, thus encouraging the visibility of and activity toward this success outcome.

Kanter, the education under secretary, said such changes are in line with the Obama Administration’s goal of making the United States have the “best educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020.”

Reaching that goal, Kanter said, requires working with youths during their middle and high school years to make sure they not only graduate, but graduate ready to succeed in college and beyond.

Jamaal Abdul-Alim covers College & Careers through a grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. He can be reached at Jamaal@youthtoday.org