Confession: I’m a sucker for a good infographic. And today, the Strategic Data Project at Harvard (part of the Center for Education Policy Research) released three(!). As Caralee Adams reported in College Bound, the project has developed a set of performance indicators for school districts and high schools – indicators that provide insight into how well they do in preparing and sending their graduates to college. While Harvard has partnered with five specific school districts, the work could expand to more with the help of a free educator toolkit on how to better use data. The project hopes these data points will become as commonly-used (and understood) as price-to-earnings ratios in the business sector.
This is not the first time I’ve cheered (or lamented) the lack of information-sharing between K-12 and postsecondary education. As the K-12 system becomes more and more oriented around college and career readiness – through Common Core academic standards, the related PARCC and Smarter Balanced assessments, and new school accountability systems in ESEA waivers –high schools will have unprecedented incentive to ensure their students leave high school ready for what comes next. Joy Resmovits in the Huffington Post notes that college completion is increasingly becoming a measure of success for high schools. But without accurate, transparent, and timely data for high schools about how well their students fared in college, educators are flying blind. How do you respond to a problem when you can’t pinpoint where the problem is or how bad it is?
The Strategic Data Project identified three performance indicators to help. The first examines the influence of demographics on college-going rates in each district. The project found that, at first glance, there are significant college enrollment gaps between white students and Black or Latino students. But after accounting for past student achievement and family income, these gaps tend to fall by 20 percentage points. In some districts, after the adjustment, Black or Latino students were more likely to enter college than similar white students. The gap tended to remain, however, for Latino students. This suggests that income, not race, limits college access. High schools could address this with better information and counseling about financial aid, and even dual enrollment or early college high school models, which allow students to get started on a college degree without the hefty price tag of full college tuition. Latinos appear to face additional barriers to college, so high schools and districts may want to create college-going programs specifically for these students.
While the first indicator examined how demographic factors affect college-going, the second explored whether high schools can make a difference. They found that within districts the college-going rates at high schools varied significantly – in one case, the gap between the best and worst high school was 58 percentage points. Clearly, some high schools were much more successful than others at helping their graduates enter college. The college-going rates were broken down by past student achievement, but the range between the best and worst high school in each district was large across all levels of achievement. This means that specific choices, practices, and policies within high schools matter in getting students to college, regardless of whether the high school enrolls students who are struggling or superstars. Hopefully, the Harvard project will take these findings one step further and identify the practices, structures, and school culture that made some of these high schools so much more successful.
Finally, the third indicator examines the college matches of each district’s top students – those with high GPAs and SAT scores. They found that many of the best students tended to either not enroll in college, or under-match and enroll in a less-selective college. This finding is significant for students: students that attended colleges that did not match their potential had lower persistence rates and are less likely to finish their degree. This has long-term negative consequences on their earnings potential and their ability to support a family. For whatever reason – lack of awareness, financial concerns, poor counseling – these students with, arguably, the best chance to succeed were pushed off-course. High schools can take this indicator and use the data to improve counseling efforts and help shuttle students to colleges where they will have the best chance for success.
Five school districts are fortunate to have access to this important feedback. Hopefully, other state and district efforts to improve college-going will take notice and build these kinds of indicators into their school report cards. High school teachers and principals certainly care about their students’ test scores, but I bet they care even more about whether those students are succeeding once they leave their high school classrooms.