Ready for what? Postsecondary data on school report cards remains mixed bag
Editor’s note: This project began before the coronavirus disrupted the school year and dramatically changed how high school seniors are preparing for the next phase of their lives. As a result, the postsecondary picture for the class of 2020 will likely appear quite different than that of recent years. But making college enrollment data accessible for the public can help answer questions about how these closures will affect students and schools — and perhaps how schools can refine efforts to prepare future students through these transitions.
When the Pennsylvania Department of Education was redesigning its school report card in 2018, it didn’t limit the data on students’ college and career readiness to the typical indicators of participation in Advanced Placement courses, admission test scores or even whether students earned an industry-recognized credential.
Its Future Ready PA Index includes percentages of students from each high school entering college, the military or the workforce, and a further breakdown shows the percentage of black, white and economically disadvantaged graduates following each of those pathways.
“Pennsylvania is looking at projections that six in 10 jobs in our major industries require some type of postsecondary certification or training,” said Brian Campbell, director of the Bureau of Curriculum, Assessment, and Instruction at the Pennsylvania Department of Education.
The state is one of 32 that now includes college enrollment rates on report cards created for parents and the public. It’s an area of student performance the federal Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to report — sort of.
According to 2019 guidance from the U.S. Department of Education, school report cards should include what students are doing after high school graduation “to the extent postsecondary enrollment data are available.” And the data should be disaggregated by racial and ethnic subgroup and whether students have a disability, are English learners or are from low-income families.
Currently, 16 of the 32 states include any breakdown of the data by subgroup.
“ESSA did say if you’ve got this data, publish it on the report cards where parents are looking,” said Paige Kowalski, executive vice president of the Data Quality Campaign, a nonprofit focusing on making education data understandable and useful to families and educators.
But Kowalski added that more than 40 states’ report cards are missing K-12 data on at least one subgroup, required since 2002’s No Child Left Behind law. So, she’s not surprised states are still in the process of adding postsecondary data.
“When you tack on a term like ‘where available,’” she said, “it’s pretty tough to get stuff done.”
According to DQC’s 2019 “Show Me the Data” report, 27 states did not include postsecondary enrollment on their report cards. “Postsecondary data side by side with graduation rates helps communities better understand how schools are preparing students for life after the classroom,” the report said.
Which states provide postsecondary data?
32 states provide some data on college enrollment rates of high school graduates on their K-12 school report cards. Of those 32, half disaggregate the data by at least one subgroup.
Kowalski said she doesn’t expect to see that number grow significantly this year. (Release of DQC's 2020 report is planned for May.) But even since last year’s report, there’s been movement in this area. For example, when DQC compiled the 2019 report, Florida was still updating its report card. Under the “Graduation and Beyond” section of each high school report card, there is now a Postsecondary Continuation Rate tab that includes two drop-down menus. One allows users to generate charts by the type of higher ed institution — in-state public or in-state private/out-of-state — and a second dropdown includes choices of subgroup.
In another example, the Vermont Annual Snapshot includes a section for “college/career-ready outcomes within 16 months of graduation” and notes the Snapshot will begin including that data when it releases 2018-19 reports.
‘Tracking what happens’
The higher-level courses students take in high school, their scores on the SAT or ACT, their grade-point averages and other college and career readiness indicators are still just proxies for whether students will enter college, said Anne Hyslop, the assistant director for policy development and government relations at the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education.
“The point of K-12 education isn’t to just graduate with a diploma; it is to graduate college and career ready,” she said. “But the only way you really know if [students] are ready is tracking what happens once they graduate.”
Strengthening the link between K-12 and higher education data is also relevant in the discussion over whether states are watering down graduation requirements or whether credit recovery programs of questionable quality are contributing to higher graduation rates. Douglas Harris, a senior fellow for the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution, wrote that increasing graduation rates are not a "mirage" and accountability systems "produced some real and important knowledge and skills for students."
But with another perspective, Marie O’Hara, the director of research at Achieve, wrote in a recent paper that graduation rates are not met with “corresponding gains” in measures such as performance on state high school assessments and 12th grade scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
That graduation rate means something different when you find out that the students walking across the stage in June were not ready.
“Graduation rates tick up every year, but nearly every other outcome measure has not seen gains,” O’Hara said, adding that more knowledge about what students are doing after high school could allow districts to better understand strengths and weaknesses. “My sense is that most school level leaders don’t have a good feedback loop.”
The “next step” in this work, Hyslop said, is for states to also report the rate at which students are first enrolling in remedial courses in college before they can earn credit.
“If you’re a parent looking at high schools, that is really important to know,” Kowalski agrees. “That graduation rate means something different when you find out that the students walking across the stage in June were not ready.”
The Illinois Report Card includes the percentage of graduates who enroll in remedial courses at state community colleges. Report cards in Georgia and North Dakota also include remediation data.
The Nevada Report Card is a different case. It includes the percentages of students who enrolled in a remedial math, reading or writing course in the Nevada System of Higher Education in the fall following graduation. But individual school report cards don’t include college enrollment rates. Users have to search at the district level and check boxes to search for that information.
At a district or state level, data on remediation rates also gives the higher education system “a real sense of the preparedness of the students you are serving,” Hyslop said. “They are needing to think about strategies to fill in gaps students have when they are coming into their institutions.”
Then there’s the persistence issue. Several states, including Connecticut, Illinois, Kansas, Maryland and Michigan, provide data on whether those who entered college in the fall after graduating high school are still enrolled at least a year later.
In the “Prepared for Success” section of its report card, for example, Ohio even provides the number of students from a given cohort who graduate college within six years after high school. And it provides a link to “transition reports” that include further detail.
Business leaders and workforce development officials are among those who find the information helpful.
“Education data is extremely valuable and useful to our industry partners,” said Karianne Gelinas, vice president of strategic initiatives and research at the Lehigh Valley Economic Development Corporation in Pennsylvania. “Businesses in our region want to know the size of the labor force and that graduates are prepared for the workforce.”
Victaulic, an Easton, Pennsylvania-based company that makes pipe joining systems, is one company in the region following such trends.
“Postsecondary data can drive alignment among the region’s current businesses as well as the businesses we are trying to attract to the region,” said Vice President Eric B. Luftig.
In December, Luftig spoke to more than 500 educators at an SAS conference on “bridging the skills gap.” He told them, “You absolutely have ‘the product’ we need. We just need to work together to align the areas of focus and create the career pathways from early education through vocational/higher education with the employers/companies in the regions.”
Explore state report cards
Growth of linked data systems
The federal government began supporting states’ efforts to tell these data stories in 2002 with a grant program for longitudinal data systems as part of the Education Sciences Reform Act. DQC formed to assist states in the process, outlining the “essential elements” of P-16 data systems. Then in 2009, the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act made establishing longitudinal data systems a condition of receiving funds.
According to an analysis from the Education Commission of the States, all but Alabama, New Mexico and Wyoming have received federal funding to support the development of longitudinal systems. And 34 states and the District of Columbia have systems that include both K-12 and postsecondary data.
But not all of those that received federal funding and have systems including K-12 and higher education display postsecondary outcomes on their school report cards. Indiana, for example, received almost $5.2 million from the federal Statewide Longitudinal Data System Grant Program in 2007 and almost $4 million in 2012. But its INView school report card site doesn’t include any postsecondary data.
“INview is still relatively new here in Indiana,” said Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education. “And while a lot of work has gone into its design and makeup, we haven’t necessarily closed the books on any inclusions. With that in mind, I can say we have not ruled out that possibly.”
President Donald Trump has recommended eliminating funding for the data system grant program, and his administration’s budget request for fiscal year 2021 said it has “fulfilled its original purpose and is no longer necessary.” A proposed block grant could support this work, the administration said.
Even if there is a straightforward link to the data on another state website, school report cards “help communities understand what is happening to our kids,” Kowalski said. “A report card is a wonderful place to ground that conversation.”
Another piece of the longitudinal data puzzle has been the role of the National Student Clearinghouse. The nonprofit verifies enrollment and degree data from colleges and institutions across the country, and it provides services that help states and districts track outcomes for students who leave the state to go to college or choose a private institution.
Some state report cards list NSC as the source of their postsecondary data. Connecticut report cards for each high school even link to the specific StudentTracker for High Schools report, one of NSC’s products.
“NSC is a very important data source for most states, but it does mean that states are essentially paying to get data back about their own students,” said Rachel Anderson, DQC’s director of policy and research strategy. “Many advocates, including DQC, see NSC’s value but also believe that securely connecting K-12 and postsecondary data is a function states could and should provide themselves.”
Forty states pay for StudentTracker for High Schools at the state level, according to NSC. And two states pick up the cost for each high school to have access. The Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, for example, spends about $60,000 a year to give districts access to those reports on what students do after high school, said Robert Curtin, associate commissioner of the Center for District Support.
“It’s a question that our districts get asked,” he said. “We take the approach of whatever data we have, we’re going to make it available.”
For contractual reasons, NSC did not name the other state that covers the cost for high schools.
Accountability or information?
Kowalski added if district or school leaders are resistant to having postsecondary outcomes on their school report cards, it could be because they are in a state or region in which a significant portion of students go to college out of state, and they don’t have data on them.
Patrick Bell, the education programs supervisor for accountability at the Nevada Department of Education, said NSC data on students who attend college out of state “lags several years behind.”
“Thus exact college enrollment counts are difficult to obtain within the time frames in which we report student data on the Nevada Report Card,” he said.
Some in the K-12 sector also question whether including postsecondary indicators on high school report cards implies the college enrollment rate figures into a school’s rating or grade.
“What is the purpose and who is the audience?” asks Gil Compton, director of college and career readiness for the Riverside County Office of Education in California. “Is it in the name of accountability, or improvement or a little bit of both?”
But Hyslop suggests there is a difference between the type of accountability that “comes through transparency alone” and whether it’s used to determine which schools are in need of support.
The fact is, some states are figuring college enrollment rates into their formal ESSA accountability systems for high schools — whether or not the indicator appears on the state report card.
Connecticut includes the percentage of graduates that enroll in a two- or four-year postsecondary institution during the first year after high school as one of 12 indicators figuring into its accountability system. Arizona, Michigan and Vermont use college-entrance rates as part of their School Quality and Student Success indicator — the so-called fifth indicator — for high schools.
And Georgia includes the rate at which students enter a state technical college or the University System of Georgia without needing remediation as part of the fifth indicator, which was intended to consider measures beyond achievement scores in defining a well-rounded education.
Hyslop expects more states to include postsecondary indicators on report cards — and in their accountability systems — as “the quality of the data gets better.”
Straddling K-12 and higher ed
There are also areas that straddle both the K-12 and higher education systems that experts feel need more attention — on state report cards and in general. One is dual enrollment. With the expansion of career and technical education, the Early College model and programs such as P-TECH, some students are degree completers when they leave high school.
You can’t know, as a state or as an institution, whether you are serving your state/community equitably unless you have data showing who you are serving and regular, consistent reporting of functional, usable, accurate data.
“I think the data conversation is critical in addressing equity,” said Amy Williams, executive director of the National Alliance of Concurrent Enrollment Partnerships, which accredits college courses offered in high schools. “You can’t know, as a state or as an institution, whether you are serving your state/community equitably unless you have data showing who you are serving and regular, consistent reporting of functional, usable, accurate data.”
She adds when she served as Montana’s CTE director, she pushed for more “realistic” college and career indicators, such as dual-enrollment, work-based learning and industry certifications. ACT and SAT scores, she said, “have some predictive use, but not for all students and particularly seem vexing for students that tend to be underrepresented in higher education.”
Another issue is whether students are completing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which some argue should be a mandate for all students.
“Failing to fill it out reduces the likelihood of college enrollment and eventual completion by reducing access to financial aid,” Catharine B. Hill, managing director of Ithaka S+R, a research and strategy organization, wrote in a recent commentary. “A requirement would make it more likely that high schools take on the responsibility of helping all students get this form completed. They help with other forms related to applying to college, so why not this significant one?”
Her question leads to others: If submitting FAFSA is required, should it be an indicator on school report cards? And if so, is it a college-and-career indicator or a postsecondary one? Louisiana, which requires high school students to complete the form for graduation, includes the completion rate as one of its postsecondary indicators, as do North Dakota and South Carolina, which don’t require it.
James Ward, a researcher at Ithaka S+R, said FAFSA completion is an element of what educators call "college knowledge" and makes sense as part of the college- and career-readiness indicators on a state report card.
“Given that FAFSA completion rates are likely easy to calculate, the inclusions of such data is unlikely to be a burden,” he said. “However, the potential benefits of reporting data can help parents, school leaders and policymakers make decisions as well as provide useful data for researchers and analysts.”
Facing ‘data gaps’
Some of the strongest advocates for making high schools’ postsecondary outcomes easier to find are university professors and researchers.
When researchers at the Pullias Center for Higher Education at the University of Southern California were implementing a game-based college application intervention, for example, they faced “data gaps” that hindered their ability to track the impact of the tool.
“In addition to our own difficulties obtaining necessary data for the study outcomes, in our qualitative research with school faculty and staff, we learned that schools themselves struggled to collect and obtain data that could be used to improve curricula, teaching, student performance and even college outcomes,” they wrote in a paper on the topic.
And just like K-12 leaders want to track what their graduates do after high school, officials in higher ed want a better understanding of students’ grades and courses in high school, Michal Kurlaender, an education professor and department chair at the University of California, Davis, wrote in an op-ed last year. She was commenting on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed $10 million for a “cradle-to-career” data system, which was approved.
“I think it is definitely useful information for parents, and likely business leaders, too,” she said. “The idea of including postsecondary outcomes as part of K-12 accountability is to recognize that high school preparation, both in terms of content and academic preparation skills, as well as broader information and navigation skills has long-term impacts on students’ postsecondary attainment.”