Higher Expectations: Moving Toward Indicators of College Readiness


Jacob Mishook is a senior research associate in district redesign and leadership at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

Districts need to develop robust measures to track their students’ college readiness, starting as early as elementary school – and use those measures to put supports and interventions in place.

The past three decades of education reform in the United States, since the report A Nation at Risk, have seen a consistent ratcheting up of standards and expectations for students, teachers, and education leaders. For much of this time, the primary focus was on raising the troublingly low rates of high school graduation, concentrated especially in schools dubbed “dropout factories.” At the same time, there has been a growing understanding that obtaining a high school diploma is not enough for young adults to compete for highly skilled jobs, and that well-paying jobs historically requiring only a high school diploma, such as those in the manufacturing sector, are disappearing. Having the skills and knowledge to enter and succeed in a postsecondary institution is now the standard to which our young people are being held, and where the opportunities for economic growth lie in the future.

Thus, we have now moved into an era of college readiness, where a broad range of actors – the Obama administration, multi-state collaboratives, local policymakers, major foundations, researchers, and community-based organizations – have reached considerable agreement that ensuring that all young people are prepared to succeed in college, whether or not they decide to pursue that path, is a key strategy for the United States to remain globally competitive. There is also an emerging research literature that recognizes that solid academic preparation, while necessary, is not sufficient to succeed in college. Both academic tenacity and college knowledge arm students with the “soft” skills necessary to understand the process for accessing higher education and the cognitive and meta-cognitive strategies, like persistence, that allow students to succeed in the college environment.

But to get from being aware of the urgent need for college readiness to actually ensuring postsecondary success for our nation’s students, we need to address three questions. How do we know when a student is prepared for college? How do we get that information in time to support a struggling student, rather than after standardized test scores are in, when it’s too late? And most important, how do we use that information to design effective supports and interventions?

The concept of “leading indicators” for education was pioneered by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University (AISR), along with early work on the opportunities and challenges of using data warehouses to support student achievement (Foley et al. 2008; Mieles & Foley 2005). AISR, with its focus on building the capacity of urban districts to improve educational outcomes for all students, has a long history documenting the work of districts around the development and use of indicators to improve the educational outcomes for students.

Developing leading indicators for college readiness builds naturally upon this work. In that earlier work, we found that although indicators exist to identify students at risk of dropping out of high school, few indicators of students’ college readiness were currently in place, and few districts have linked indicators to practices and policies at the school and district levels in ways that would enable action to create meaningful, lasting change. One of the primary roles that districts and their partners can play today is to identify and develop a system of college readiness indicators – and tie those indicators to individualized supports and interventions.

That is the goal of the College Readiness Indicator Systems (CRIS) project, which brings together two research and reform support organizations – AISR and the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities at Stanford University – and five district partners – Dallas Independent School District, New Visions for Public Schools in New York City, the School District of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh Public Schools, and San Jose Unified School District – with funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.1

The CRIS Network is working to address several key questions, including:

  • Are the indicators that identify students who aren’t on track for college readiness the same ones that will point to interventions for those students?
  • What is the balance between having a parsimonious number of predictive indicators – typically measures of academic preparedness – and taking into account the harder-to-measure indicators of academic tenacity and “college knowledge,” which also impact college readiness?
  • In this fiscally uncertain time, how can districts leverage their limited resources to best support schools using data to identify “off-track” students and provide necessary interventions?
  • How can external partners, including higher education institutions, the business community, and community-based organizations, support districts in a community-wide effort to ensure all students are college ready?

The articles in this issue of Voices in Urban Education focus on building robust, predictive, and nuanced college readiness indicator systems, connected to supports and interventions for students and drawing on the experience and expertise of the entire community, from K–12 systems to higher education to community-based organizations to local government.

  • Oded Gurantz and Graciela Borsato of the John W. Gardner Center at Stanford University describe the tri-level system of college readiness indicators they developed in their ongoing collaboration with the CRIS districts and present early findings from that work. Article
  • Matthew Hewitson, Mary Martinez, and Emalie McGinnis – principals in San Jose Unified School District and participants in the CRIS work – talk about their role in building college readiness supports for all students in their schools and what it means to be college ready across K–12.
  • Freeman Hrabowski III, president of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, shares his long-time passion to increase the number of minority students majoring in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields and the supports those students need to succeed in higher education.
  • Jamie Alter of New Visions for Public Schools, Shane Hall of Dallas Independent School District, and Marcy Lauck of San Jose Unified School District share their perspectives as CRIS liaisons to identify and refine not only college readiness indicators in their school systems, but also the ways those indicators are being used to support students who are off-track for college.
  • Jacob Mishook, senior research associate at AISR, describes the connections between the college readiness work of CRIS and AISR’s focus on “smart education systems” that ensure equitable access for all young people to an education that prepares them for college and career success, and for active and informed citizenship in our nation’s democratic process.

The districts, school leaders, higher education institutions, community-based organizations, and researchers represented here are on the leading edge of understanding how to engage students with more demanding academic content, developing nuanced and parsimonious indicators of college readiness, and providing supports and interventions for those students who struggle with these higher expectations. Finally, there is also a growing awareness that in an environment with diminishing resources for school systems, it is only through community-wide advocacy and collaboration that districts will be able to provide all students with the tools and knowledge to succeed in the world beyond high school.

1. For more about CRIS, visit http://annenberginstitute.org/cris

Foley, E. J. Mishook, J. Thompson, M. Kubiak, J. Supovitz, and M. K. Rhude-Faust. 2008. Beyond Test Scores: Leading Indicators for Education. Providence, RI: Brown University, Annenberg Institute for School Reform.

Mieles, T., and E. Foley. 2005. From Data to Decisions: Lessons from School Districts Using Data Warehousing. Providence, RI: Brown University, Annenberg Institute for School Reform.