Diversity & Democracy: Civic Learning for Shared Futures
Diversity Innovations Institutional Leadership and Commitment
Diversity Digest Volume 7, Number 4

Diversity Digest
Volume 8,
Number 1

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Institutional Leadership and Commitment
The Right to Learn and the Pathways to College Network
Faculty Involvement
Designing Pathways to a Four-Year Degree
Preparing Students to Succeed in Broad Access Postsecondary Institutions
African-American Student Achievement in Historically Black Colleges and Universities
College Choice and Diversity
Making Diversity News
Media Watch
Linking Student Support with Student Success: The Posse Foundation
Diversity Digest’s New Editor

Preparing Students to Succeed in Broad Access
Postsecondary Institutions

By Michael W. Kirst, professor of education and business administration, Stanford University, and member of the Research Scholars Panel, Pathways to College Network

Michael W. Kirst

Michael W. Kirst

By Michael W. Kirst, professor of education and business administration, Stanford University, and member of the Research Scholars Panel, Pathways to College Network

Schools and colleges that deliberately educate a broader range of students are finding themselves in a quagmire. They are committed to providing democratic access to education for all students, but they are plagued by the inadequate preparation of students, high levels of remediation, and low rates of college completion. These problems are exacerbated by a systemic disconnect between K-12 and postsecondary education.

In these broad access schools, neither the students nor their teachers have sufficient knowledge about college admissions standards or curricular expectations. The problem is compounded when high school students, especially the most economically disadvantaged, receive inadequate counseling and a curriculum that does not prepare them for college-level work.

Attempts to solve these problems sector by sector have clearly failed. What is needed now is a collective commitment between K-12 and postsecondary institutions to improve student outcomes. By focusing systematically on how to create effective pathways for students, some of these troubling obstacles to student success can begin to be addressed.

The Bridge Project

Stanford University’s Bridge Project, a six-year national study begun in 1996, is providing insights about this systemic approach to preparing students for college-level work. Researchers from the project interviewed people at state agencies, universities, and community colleges in six states: California, Illinois, Georgia, Maryland, Oregon, and Texas. They also interviewed high school teachers, counselors, and administrators, surveyed high school students and their parents, and talked with groups of high school and community college students.

What the Bridge Project discovered was that at the state level, substantial progress has occurred in two areas. There is consensus now about what students should know and what they are able to do in the K-12 grades; there is also consensus about how to align standards, assessments, textbook selection, and accountability measures at the K-12 level. However, the lack of continuity in content, assessment, and standards between postsecondary and K-12 systems remains a serious problem. Unless we close this standards gap and align K-16 policies, secondary schools will continue to fail to prepare graduates for higher education. As long as the K-12 landscape is marked by a hodgepodge of standards and tests rather than a coherent learning strategy, high levels of remediation at colleges are inevitable.
Broad access college students pay the highest price: Because the standards from their high schools are generally low, they often fail to meet postsecondary expectations for college readiness. For example, since high school counselors are occasionally ill-informed about college admissions standards, they sometimes fail to warn students who have passed low-level exit exams that skipping math in their senior year will leave them unprepared for college.

New Directions

Shifting the focus of local, state, and federal programs from access to success is the first step toward improving policies that affect underserved students. For the past fifty years, it has made sense for the United States to concentrate its postsecondary education policies on opening the doors to college. These policies have a largely positive impact. However, access without success is not opportunity: True college opportunity is only possible when all students have a fair chance to succeed.

Specific Steps

  • Examine the relationship between the content of postsecondary education placement exams and K-12 exit-level standards and assessments to determine if more compatibility is possible. K-12 standards and assessments that are aligned with those of postsecondary education are effective only if they are of high quality. Examples of high-quality K-12 exams are the New York Regents Exam, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System, the California Standards Tests, and the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills.
  • Statewide high school assessments should be diagnostic in nature, and should indicate to students if their scores meet or exceed the levels for college preparation or if remediation is needed. Appropriate K-12 state assessments could be used as placement factors by public postsecondary institutions. The California State University system has dropped its own placement test and now uses the K-12 standards test. Postsecondary institutions can indicate when college remediation is necessary by setting performance levels on statewide high school exams. If these remediation concerns are communicated to high school juniors, students can spend their senior year in high school preparing for postsecondary education.
  • Review the extent to which postsecondary education placement exams for reliability, validity, and efficacy promote teaching for understanding. This includes scrutiny of assessments developed by individual campuses, departments, and faculty. Data about the efficacy of placement procedures need to be maintained and used to inform policy and programming decisions.
  • Sequence undergraduate general education requirements so that appropriate senior-year high school courses are linked to postsecondary general education courses.
  • Expand successful dual or concurrent enrollment programs between high schools and colleges to include all students, not just traditionally “college-bound” ones. Many students are not comfortable socially or emotionally in high school environments, while others complete their schools’ highest-level courses as sophomores and juniors and have trouble finding appropriately challenging courses as seniors.
  • Collect and connect data from K-16 education sectors. This can include, for example, data on the relationship between student course-taking patterns in high school and the need for remedial work, or longitudinal data on what happens to students after they complete remedial-level coursework.


These recommendations will be easier to implement, and more effective, if policy-making and oversight is coordinated for K-16 education. Most states currently discourage K-16 policy makers by having separate K-12 and higher education legislative committees and state agencies. These implicit barriers inhibit joint policy making and communication on issues such as funding, research, student learning (curriculum, standards, and assessment), matriculation and transfer, teacher training and professional development, and accountability. While every state and region needs to have its own form of governance, many integrative models can be created.
Implementing these recommendations will not magically eliminate all of the causes of inadequate college preparation. Nevertheless, such steps can create a more equitable educational experience for all students, providing more students with the opportunity to get the preparation they need to succeed in college.

Questions, comments, and suggestions regarding Diversity & Democracy should be directed to Kathryn Peltier Campbell at campbell@aacu.org.
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