The College Puzzle Blog
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Dr. Michael W. Kirst

Michael W. Kirst is Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University since 1969.
Dr. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. Before joining the Stanford University faculty, Dr. Kirst held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty. He was a former president of the California State Board of Education. His book From High School to College with Andrea Venezia was published by Jossey Bass in 2004.

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My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

Flawed Testing in a Disconnected K-16 System Is Not Helping Increase College Success and College Completion

Admissions literature focuses upon what is most beneficial to postsecondary education without contemplating the impact of admissions tests upon secondary schools, K-12 students, and teachers. Admissions tests send powerful and clear signals to all K-12 groups about what knowledge is most worth knowing and college preparation.

One of the biggest issues is the proliferation of tests in grades 9 through 11 that occurs because of the postsecondary assessments for admission, and the new statewide tests created by the K-12 standards movement. For example, California tests all students grades 9 through 11 with a cross-cutting mathematics and language arts assessment, and has state-mandated end-of-course exams in most academic subjects, such as biology, U.S. history, and English literature.

As of 2007, none of these K-12 tests are used as an admissions factor by the University of California or California State University. The California State University placement exam includes more advanced mathematics than SAT I During the Spring of the 11th grade, there is a particularly onerous amount of testing for UC applicants that includes: the SAT I, SAT II, Advanced Placement tests, and at least five state K-12 tests that have no admissions or placement stakes for students.

Education standards and tests are set in different K-12 and postsecondary orbits that only intersect for students in Advanced Placement courses. How else could 49 states (all but Iowa) set K-12 standards and assessments without talking with higher education institutions and state boards for higher education? The huge disjuncture between K-12 and postsecondary school standards results in a lack of K-16 understanding, collaborative design, and knowledge about the assessments used by each education level.

Higher education is concerned with the upward trajectory of pupils, for example, admissions test’s purported ability to not only determine academic readiness but also predict student performance in the first year of college. Secondary education is concerned with high school graduation and the attainment of annual state and federal growth goals for K-12 state assessments.

Secondary educators rarely discuss or consider the impact upon postsecondary education that new and expanding assessment policies might create. Moreover, there is no K-16 accountability system that might cause the two levels to work together on common assessment goals in order to reduce postsecondary remediation and increase chances for college completion and college success. (See Andrea Venezia, Michael W. Kirst, and Anthony Antonio, Betraying the College Dream: How Disconnected K-12 and Postsecondary Education Systems Undermine Student Aspirations, Stanford, CA: Stanford Institute for Higher Education Research, 2003).

Universities provide some good arguments to explain why they pay little attention to K–12 standards or assessments. First, the universities emphasize that they are not involved in the creation or refinement of the K–12 standards. Second, the universities observe that both politics and technical problems effect frequent changes in state K–12 standards. Third, they note that the K–12 assessments have not been evaluated to see how well they predict freshman grades (although such evaluations are not difficult to conduct). The result is a K-16 babble of education standards that leads to unclear signals for students (particularly those from low-SES families), high remediation rates, and much misdirected energy by students caught between conflicting standards.

For 80% of students who do not go to selective four-year schools, a crucial standard is an institutionally administered placement exam which is often not very well aligned with the ACT or SAT I. Yet placement exams are essential for channeling students into non-credit postsecondary remedial courses.

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