College readiness declines when school's focus is improving test scores, study finds

May 12, 2015
College readiness declines when school's focus is improving test scores, study finds
University of Illinois education professor Anjale D. Welton is the co-author of a study that explored efforts to maintain a college-going culture at one Texas high school. Illinois alumna Montrischa M. Williams of the American Institutes for Research co-wrote the paper. Credit: L. Brian Stauffer

Education reform policies that penalize struggling schools for poor standardized test scores may hinder—not improve—students' college readiness, if a school's instructional focus becomes improving its test scores, suggests a new study that explored efforts to promote a college-going culture at one Texas high school.

Published recently in The High School Journal, the case study reveals the unintended consequences of school reform policies, and how these mandates may warp schools' instructional focus and thwart ' academic success.

In 2008, Texas adopted statewide College and Career Readiness Standards that established student performance benchmarks for math, science, reading and geography. Texas also is one of 26 states that require students to pass an exit exam—usually taken during students' junior year—to receive a diploma.

Anjalé D. Welton, a professor of educational policy at the University of Illinois, and Montrischa M. Williams, a researcher with the American Institutes for Research, explored the impact that these mandates had at Green High School, a pseudonym the authors used for a school located in a semirural community near a major city in Texas.

Poor academic performance on federal and state accountability tests for three consecutive years had garnered Green High School an "academically unacceptable" rating from the state education agency. As a result, teachers and staff at Green were under pressure to produce improvement within the next year, prompting them to concentrate instructional time and resources on preparing students for the exit exam.

Many teachers revised their curricula to focus on the basic skills emphasized on the exam, and made instructional decisions, such as not assigning homework, that compromised students' college readiness, according to the researchers.

More than half of Green's students were enrolled in some form of intervention for the exit exam during the time Welton and Williams were collecting data. Because so many students were being steered into these interventions, the school eliminated some advanced placement courses due to low enrollment, the researchers discovered.

Some students expressed frustration about the lack of academic rigor in their remaining AP courses, which they linked to inexperienced teachers' lower academic expectations for students.

Students were highly aware of Green's negative academic reputation and told the researchers that they felt "stigmatized" and "humiliated" by it.

A high turnover rate among Green's teaching staff made it difficult for youth to receive the social support that is essential to creating a college-going culture, especially among first-generation college students, the researchers found.

"This school was so focused on meeting the demands of state policy that it was unaware of the toll it was taking on the culture and climate of the school," Welton said. "The goal of standards and assessment is to make students more prepared for the rigors of college, but are schools implementing these measures in a way that emphasizes college readiness? Are they sending the message that students should go to college, and assisting them in applying and finding financial aid and scholarships? We should be able to do both - hold schools accountable and create a college-going culture."

The community surrounding Green High School had experienced a major demographic shift over the prior decade as urban families relocated to the city's outskirts. However, the researchers observed that school officials and teachers were unprepared to meet the needs of low-income and minority youth, and blamed these students for Green's academic decline.

While Green implemented some promising programs to increase the numbers of graduates going to college, these initiatives reached few students, leaving most youth on their own to figure out how to access college information, according to the study.

Although Welton and Williams' research focused on one , they believe that other schools across the U.S. are experiencing similar difficulties, suggesting a need to examine the true impact of accountability mandates and help schools develop teaching practices that support students' academic success and postsecondary aspirations.

"Schools with large populations of youth of color and low-income youth are overwhelmingly targeted for reform initiatives, and, as a society, we need to examine how schools become highly minoritized and why they have large numbers of students with various needs," Welton said. "In states such as Texas, people of color are the majority population, and we need to rethink how we label schools for reform purposes."

"Rather than centering performance problems on students and teachers, policymakers should take into consideration the systemic inequities and larger sociopolitical contexts in which schools operate," Williams said. "We also need to be more aware of the impact of labeling schools 'high minority, high poverty' and 'low performing,' because these descriptors convey deficit connotations."

Explore further: Genres in writing: A new path to English language learning

Related Stories

Genres in writing: A new path to English language learning

April 20, 2015

Migration and globalization are placing thousands of second language learners in the classrooms of teachers who lack training in language instruction. As a result, schools face the challenge of preparing educators to foster ...

Better breakfast, better grades

March 17, 2015

A new study from the University of Iowa reinforces the connection between good nutrition and good grades, finding that free school breakfasts help students from low-income families perform better academically.

Small high school reform boosts districtwide outcomes

April 28, 2015

Creating small high schools improves outcomes for students in the overall school district - both in new small schools and existing larger schools - according to a study of New York City schools by researchers at New York ...

Recommended for you

Ancient parrot fossil found in Siberia

October 26, 2016

(—A Russian paleontologist has discovered a parrot fossil uncovered in Siberia several years ago—the first evidence of parrots living in Asia. In his paper published in Biology Letters, Nikita Zelenkov describes ...

Ancient burials suggestive of blood feuds

October 24, 2016

There is significant variation in how different cultures over time have dealt with the dead. Yet, at a very basic level, funerals in the Sonoran Desert thousands of years ago were similar to what they are today. Bodies of ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

not rated yet Jun 09, 2015

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.