Coalition of Austin-area schools lifts college readiness rates

6:30 p.m Monday, Nov. 13, 2017 Local
Eileen Slaton instructs a class using problem solving and charts in April 2016. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL/AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Just over 41 percent of Central Texas high school graduates are ready for college, a double-digit decline from two years ago.

Schools in nine Austin-area districts fared slightly better than the statewide average; only 39 percent of Texas graduates in 2016 were ready for college, according to the latest data available from the Texas Education Agency.

It’s more than a statistic. Students who are not college-ready by Texas standards must take remedial courses once enrolled in higher education, costing them time and tuition money before they can forge ahead with other college courses.

But five area districts that are working in collaboration with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce to improve their college readiness ratings are making gains toward reversing that trend, preliminary data from the 2017 school year show.

Those districts — Austin, Hutto, Leander, Pflugerville and Round Rock — have lifted the percentage of graduates who are college-ready to 58 percent, the 2017 data show. The gains will be highlighted during the chamber’s annual State of Education presentation Tuesday.

“In the face of lower Texas college readiness rates statewide, our partnership school leaders deserve immense credit for their efforts to stem the tide,” said Shaun Cranston, the chamber’s education chairman. “We also believe that due to their focus on helping our children achieve success, college readiness rates will bounce back here more quickly than other school districts across the state.”

The five districts offer their students various resources to bolster college readiness, including tutoring and college entrance exams on campus.

“Being college-ready significantly improves the odds of enrolling in, persisting and completing college within a reasonable time period,” said Greg Cumpton, associate director at the University of Texas’ Ray Marshall Center, which works with the chamber and the five districts to examine student achievement and identify effective ways to improve college enrollment rates directly after high school.

Initially, four other school districts were involved in the partnership with the chamber, which challenged the Central Texas districts to collect real-time college readiness data and boost direct-to-college rates.

But earlier this year, the four — Del Valle, Elgin, Hays and Manor — left the program, saying they didn’t have the time or resources. Most of those districts posted worse college-ready rates; they had a collective average of 29 percent. Only Hays performed better, with 44 percent of students ready for college.

It is unclear how well the 2017 graduates performed in those districts, or statewide, as data on college readiness reported by the Texas Education Agency usually lag about 18 months after a class has graduated.

The state measures college readiness based on students’ highest score on any of the three college entrance exams: the ACT, the SAT and the Texas Success Initiative.

Unlike the previous state-mandated exit exam, the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness end-of-course tests, which most high school students must pass to graduate, do not include college-ready benchmarks.

Some have blamed the state’s less stringent graduation paths, which require fewer advanced courses, for the slip in college readiness scores. Others point out that because all students do not take the college readiness tests, the data don’t reflect all students and cannot be accurately compared with past college readiness rates, which were based on statewide assessments.

The state in recent years has made some efforts to boost college readiness, including lifting the cap on the number of dual-credit courses a student can take and approving more early college high schools, where students can earn an associate degree while obtaining a high school diploma.

After boosting college readiness rates in 2016, the Austin school district fell 2 percentage points to 54 percent in 2017.

“We remain focused on ensuring our students are prepared for college and careers once they graduate,” Austin district Superintendent Paul Cruz said. “It is our job to prepare students to reach their higher educational goals.”

Leander made steady gains in the past three years, with 67 percent of its 2017 graduates considered college-ready, 2 percentage points shy of its 2014 number.

“Many careers require a postsecondary education,” Leander Superintendent Dan Troxell said. “We want to ensure all students can access those opportunities after graduation.”