1. Align graduation standards for public schools with college and employer expectations.
In 2005, the year the commission was created, Achieve, a nonprofit education policy group, started the America Diploma Project Network to ensure that high-school graduates were prepared for college-level work. By 2006, 26 states had signed on to the project’s benchmarks.
Those benchmarks became the foundation for the Common Core State Standards, released last year. Forty-four states, as well as the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands, have adopted the standards, which specify what students should learn from kindergarten through high school, and 20 states have linked them to graduation requirements.
1. Restructure the entire student-aid system to improve the measurement and management of costs and productivity, and consolidate the federal grant programs.
No progress has been made on this recommendation. Though Congress has killed a handful of small programs, including the Leveraging Educational Assistance Program, it has not done so in a systematic way. Rather, it has sacrificed the programs to pay for the Pell Grant program, which has doubled in size over the past three years.
1. Create a searchable, consumer-friendly database that shows how colleges are performing and whether students are learning.
College Navigator, the department’s college-search tool, provides extensive information about costs, graduation rates, and student-loan default rates, among other things, and it allows users to compare up to four institutions. But it does not contain data on student-learning outcomes, and it does not allow students to rank institutions, as the commission suggested.
2. Perform early assessments to gauge students’ readiness for college.
Fourteen states currently do such assessments, eight more than in 2006. Five have tests tied to state standards; nine require students to take a national college-admissions examination, like the SAT or ACT. Last year, as part of its Race to the Top effort, the White House awarded $330-million to two state consortia to develop tests tied to the common core standards.
Still, most state accountability systems do not judge schools based on their success in preparing students for college, said Michael W. Kirst, a professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. “The accountability systems are still operating in separate orbits,” he said.
2.The federal government, states, and institutions should significantly increase need-based student aid.
Before Democrats took control of Congress, in 2007, the maximum Pell Grant award had been frozen at $4,050 for four years. It now stands at $5,550.
But spending on other student-aid programs has stagnated, and in some cases declined. Pell Grants, meanwhile, are more vulnerable than they’ve ever been, as a Congressional committee prepares to slash billions from the federal budget this fall.
Even with their budgetary woes, states managed to raise their spending on student aid by $1.2-billion from 2006-7 to 2009-10, to $8.87-billion.
2.Develop a privacy-protected higher-education information system that collects, analyzes, and uses student-level, rather than aggregate, data.
Congress, citing privacy concerns, barred the Education Department in 2008 from creating a national “unit record” data system that resembled what the commission called for. But federal lawmakers have provided millions of dollars to help states develop such systems on their own, including $250-million in the economic-stimulus law enacted in 2009. Last year, 45 states had databases containing information on college students, though only 28 tracked their transition from high school to college, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.
The expansion of state student-record systems is central to President Obama’s accountability agenda, which seeks to improve education through the smarter use of data. In April the Education Department issued proposed rules that would allow high-school administrators and state officials to share information on individual students with researchers, auditors, and other agencies without violating students’ privacy.
3. Expand early-college or dual-enrollment programs, as well as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses.
Over the past five years, the Early College High School Initiative, one of the largest efforts to blend high school and college, has nearly tripled in size, to more than 230 schools. The Jobs for the Future project, which is backed by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, allows underrepresented students to simultaneously earn a high-school diploma and an associate degree or credit toward a bachelor’s degree. Several states have also created early-college high schools.
From 2006 to 2011, the number of students taking AP exams grew by 600,000, to 1.9 million, while the number of high schools offering the courses grew by more than 2,000, to 18,340, according to the College Board, which administers the test. During that time, International Baccalaureate courses grew by 45 percent.
3.Replace the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or Fafsa, with a simpler application form, and provide students with earlier information about their financial-aid eligibility.
Though Secretary Spellings proposed overhauling the Fafsa, the most significant changes—such as allowing Fafsa filers to import information from their income-tax returns electronically—took place under her successor, Arne Duncan. Still, the Bush administration deserves credit for the Fafsa4caster, which provides students with early estimates of their aid eligibility and fills in portions of the Fafsa.
3. Provide incentives for states, higher-education associations, and colleges to develop better accountability systems.
In 2007 the Education Department awarded $2.45-million to three higher-education associations to develop measures for assessing learning by undergraduates. One group, the Association of American Colleges and Universities, developed a set of 15 value rubrics through which institutions could evaluate student learning. More than 2,000 institutions now use the rubrics.
Two associations that represent the nation’s public colleges developed a voluntary accountability system that includes an assessment of student learning. More than 60 percent of the groups’ member colleges—319 institutions—have signed up to use it.
4. To improve access and reduce time-to-completion, revise standards for transfer of credit among higher-education institutions.
Since 2006, 29 states have passed laws aimed at improving their transfer policies. Several have established common course-numbering systems for their public colleges and identified a general-education core; a handful guarantee that community-college credits will count toward a bachelor’s degree. But there is little evidence that the policies have increased transfer or graduation rates, according to a recent report by the College Board and the National Conference of State Legislatures. And most credit-transfer decisions remain in the hands of faculty members, who must decide whether a course taken elsewhere is equivalent to their own.
“I don’t believe that time-to-degree has been expedited over the past five years, and it may actually have increased,” said Barmak Nassirian, an associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers. Any “marginal” progress in shortening paths to graduation has probably been undone by the recession, campus overcrowding, and lack of access to courses, he added.
4. Require accreditation agencies to act more swiftly in evaluating institutions.
There is no evidence that accreditation reviews have sped up, and they may even have slowed down, as accreditors have come under greater scrutiny from Congress and the Education Department, said Robert C. Dickeson, a higher-education consultant who wrote a report on accreditation for the commission.
“They’re crossing every t twice and dotting every i a couple times,” he said. “They know they’re under the microscope.”
4. Use assessment data to measure student learning.
When the commission published its report, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, a test that measures what students learn between their freshman and senior years, was being used by 121 institutions, and 30,000 students had taken the test. Five years later, roughly 200 colleges use the test and 10 times as many students have taken it. Not every college publishes its results, though the participating public colleges do. Use of another test recommended by the commission, the Measure of Academic Proficiency and Progress, is up 33 percent, according to its creator, the Educational Testing Service.
5. Redesign the 12th-grade National Assessment of Educational Progress to measure a student’s readiness for college and the work force, and provide state by state reports.
The National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for the test, had already voted to do that in 2006. The board redesigned the 12th-grade NAEP in time for the 2009 test, which was the first to sample students at the state level, rather than just nationally. The board is now studying the test’s ability to measure preparedness for college and the work force.
5. Relieve the regulatory burden on colleges and universities.
The 2008 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act doubled colleges’ reporting burden, while requiring a review of all regulations affecting higher-education institutions. That study, by the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, has since been narrowed to focus on regulations under the Higher Education Act. Preliminary results are due out at this month. (Lawmakers also directed the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a similar study, but never provided the funds to pay for it.)
“Congress promised a lot in 2008, but it never really materialized,” said Margaret L. O’Donnell, a lawyer at Catholic University of America who tracks regulations and wrote a paper on the topic for the commission. “We out here in the field are drowning in regs.”
5. Accreditation agencies should make colleges’ performance, including completion rates and student learning, the core of their assessments. And the agencies should make their findings available to the public.
Shortly after the commission released its report, the Education Department announced that it would rewrite federal rules governing accreditation to require accreditors to focus more on learning outcomes. Congress responded by prohibiting the department from dictating how colleges measure student learning for purposes of accreditation and wresting control from the department of the National Advisory Committee on Institutional Quality and Integrity, or Naciqi, the federal agency that oversees accreditors.
Still, Naciqi has continued to push accreditors to demand more evidence of student learning and to make their findings more public. Some accreditors now post summaries of their actions online, along with information about their decisions.
“The process is more open,” said Judith S. Eaton, president of the Council for Higher Education Accreditation. “It’s not as open as some people want, but there has been progress.”