Can K-12 Schools and Higher Education Systems Synchronize Their Signals? Yes, and Here’s How

Thousands of people flock to the state of Hawai‘i every year for its incomparable sun, surf and natural beauty. Here’s something else they’ll find: The Aloha State is slowly but steadily building a seamless transition for students moving from K-12 into institutions of public higher education.

The man with the details is Dan Doerger, alignment director for Hawai‘i P-20 Partnerships for Education, the state’s P-20 council. As a former high school teacher turned university professor, Doerger knows how high schools and higher education institutions sometimes work at cross-purposes: K-12 schools teach standards that purport to prepare students for college-level work, yet thousands of graduates get stuck in remedial classes once on campus. Colleges use placement tests to determine exactly which classes incoming students should take, yet the placement tests don’t always align with what students learned in high school. It’s an unhappy cycle.

Doerger and his colleagues bridge this gap by engaging faculty and higher education leaders in the alignment quest: meeting with math working groups consisting of K-12 teachers and college professors, convening “Common Core Campus Liaisons,” keeping University of Hawai‘i campus registrars informed, asking select faculty to weigh in on Smarter Balanced assessment items and standard-setting, and getting feedback from the UH system’s vice chancellors of academics and student affairs. The goal? Build higher-education buy-in to the new Smarter Balanced assessment so that all Hawai‘i colleges will recognize a high score on the test as proof of college readiness (something that colleges in the past did not trust old state assessments to show).

Because of that groundwork, Doerger and his colleagues inked an agreement with UH’s seven community colleges and three four-year institutions to pilot using Smarter Balanced assessment results for college placement for the classes of 2016-2018.

Students who score a “4” on the math test’s four-point scale are guaranteed a spot in certain entry-level math courses at UH, without the need for remediation or an additional test. Getting that assurance in high school not only gives students something to strive for—it potentially saves time and money for both students and the state. Students with a 3 who plan a STEM major can enroll in credit-bearing classes if they take a calculus pathway course in 12th grade. Those with a 2 can take a new 12th-grade math transition course that UH professors designed with high school teachers, lending it credibility among a crowd of folks who can be skeptical of high schools’ definition of rigor.

Hawai‘i has some company in this work. Five other states participating in the Smarter Balanced assessment system have similar placement agreements: California, Delaware, Oregon, South Dakota and Washington. Nevada administers the ACT for its students, but approved a Smarter Balanced placement policy for out-of-state students. Tennessee is capturing national attention for its transition courses to prepare students for college. California blazed a similar trail years ago with its Early Assessment Program. Common standards and aligned assessments make such alignment policies possible across the country.

Hawai‘i’s placement and transition course policies aim to remove the mystery of what qualifies as “college ready.” Next up, according to Doerger: Refining data systems to give UH access to Smarter Balanced results and developing similar pathways for English. Says Doerger: “When you work with so many people at the DOE and UH levels, it is nice when things can move along smoothly. People are happy about it, and we keep moving forward.”

Read more about our work with Hawai‘i and other states focused on creating tighter alignment between K12 and higher education here and here, or look at our “Helpful Resources” section at the bottom of the page. 

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