Construction Ahead: Are State Policies Building Bridges, Detours, or Roadblocks to College?

For far too many students, the path between high school and higher education is littered with detours and roadblocks. Students find these obstacles in any number of places: as they apply for college admission, cobble together financial aid, register for first-year coursework, and even as they first set foot into a college classroom. Every year, students across the country are finding—often unexpectedly—that they fail to meet minimum admissions requirements for college,  don’t qualify for certain types of aid, cannot accurately demonstrate their readiness for credit-bearing courses, or struggle to complete the classes in which they enroll.

Mapping College Ready Policies 2015-16,” a data visualization project released earlier today by New America’s Education Policy Program, analyzes individual states’ progress towards addressing these challenges to ensure all students are on a sturdy bridge on their route from high school to higher education. This data, available on New America’s ATLAS platform, first maps key state PreK-12 policies: how states define college and career readiness, which academic standards they have adopted, how student mastery of those standards will be assessed, and which coursework must be completed for graduation. We then identify state higher education policies for admissions (specifically assessment and coursework requirements), state merit aid, and course placement, and rate each of these policies as either a bridge (those that are fully aligned between high school and higher education),  a detour (partially aligned) or a roadblock (not at all aligned).

Unfortunately, the data show the vast majority of states making little meaningful progress over the past year in addressing problematic state policies. Since our last scan of state policies for the 2014-15 school year, only six states have made forward progress on any one of these measures.

This scant progress may be attributed to the continuously shifting landscape in PreK-12, especially in regard to student assessment, a key tool for forging these connections between high school and higher education. While nearly all states have stayed the course on college- and career-ready academic standards, they have largely failed to maintain consistent assessments to gauge student mastery of those standards. Instead, the past year has seen rapid shifts in states’ PreK-12 assessment, many of which had only been fully implemented the year before. A significant number of states have moved away from the use of consortium assessments (PARCC and Smarter Balanced), and still more have replaced high school assessments designed to assess college- and career-ready standards with college entrance exams like the SAT or ACT.

Key findings from the 2015-16 Mapping College Readiness data include:

  • States have made broad shifts to their assessments. Between the 2014-15 and 2015-16 school year, 21 states have changed at least one assessment in English language arts and mathematics.
  • States have increasingly moved away from high school end-of-course and comprehensive exams in favor of college entrance exams. In the last year, six states have dropped other high school assessments in favor of the SAT or ACT.
  • Of those states that have adopted mandatory college entrance exams, most will use them to meet federal accountability requirements. Eight new states plan to use the SAT or ACT towards federal high school accountability this year, compared to only two last year.
  • A significant number of states discontinued the use of consortium assessments (PARCC, Smarter Balanced) for the current school year. Six states have discontinued the use of consortium assessments for grades 3-8, and ten states have discontinued the use of consortium assessments for high school.
  • Though states have largely moved away from the use of common assessments, they have not backed away from common standards: only one state discontinued use of the Common Core State Standards this year.
The results of our scan illustrate that states are moving at markedly different speeds in each area of college- and career-ready policy. In the realm of assessment, our data shows broad changes are taking place at high speed. These rapid changes don’t just represent a significant challenge for students in the present: they may also be contributing to the stagnating effort of states to bring their high school and higher education policies into alignment in the future. States would do well to move toward a future where well-considered, deliberate policy change builds bridges, ends detours, and removes roadblocks to student success.

New America’s 2015-2016 Mapping College Readiness data can be found here. Previous data from the 2014-15 school year is available at this link in downloadable format*.

*This project was updated to reflect New Jersey's state merit aid program, NJ STARS, on March 25th, 2016.


Abigail Swisher is a program associate with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the PreK-12 team, where her work focuses primarily on college- and career-ready policies.