Fewer Central Texas high school graduates considered college-ready

Updated May 30, 2016

Nine Central Texas school districts have pledged to lift the rate of high school graduates going straight to college to 70 percent, but new data obtained exclusively by the American-Statesman show more of those students will have to take remedial courses once they get there.

The percentage of 2016 Central Texas graduating seniors considered college-ready shows a decline since 2014, the most recent year that statewide data are available.

While some districts have reported slight drops in college readiness rates in the Class of 2016, others have seen rates plummet by double digits, according to preliminary data that the Austin-area districts shared with the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce in a collaboration to prepare more students for higher education. And the smallest districts among them, which also have large numbers of students in poverty, appear to have fared the worst.

The Austin school district showed a drop of 5 percentage points to 57 percent, and the percentage of students considered college-ready in other districts, such as Hutto and Elgin, was cut in half.

The data depict the first drop in college readiness rates in recent years in the Austin area and could be the first glimpse of a problem across Texas.

Students failing to meet the state’s college readiness standards will start college with makeup work to do.

“The most problematic thing for them is it requires them to take developmental courses, which is a delay for them to pursue their course work that go toward their certificates or degrees, and the extra expense,” said Charles Cook, the provost and executive vice president of academic affairs for Austin Community College.

In 2009, nearly half of all students entering higher education for the first time at ACC needed remedial coursework, but the college saw a steady annual decrease to 31 percent in 2014. But in 2015, there was a slight rise, with 35 percent of students needing remediation.

Statewide data on college readiness is usually released about 18 months after a class has graduated, so recent reports of improved college readiness rates across Texas have been based on data previous to the Class of 2014. But the Chamber of Commerce has challenged the Central Texas districts to collect real-time data, which the districts shared with the American-Statesman.

“While the data would suggest we still have a way to go to get to our goal of 70 percent of all graduating students moving on to some type of higher education, the data has allowed us to collectively determine and understand where we need to make improvements to reach our goal,” said Shaun Cranston, the chamber’s vice chairman of education.

The numbers for some districts could still improve over the summer, as the data are not complete until the end of August. District and college officials say the overall drop in rates this year might be due to changes in the way college readiness is determined by the state.

The state now uses student performance on three college entrance exams – the ACT, the SAT and the Texas Success Initiative – to determine a student’s college readiness.

Previously, whether Texas graduates were considered ready for college was also determined by their performance on the exit-level Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills, the former state-mandated high school exit exam. But that ended with the class of 2014. Since the transition to the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness end-of-course exams, and since lawmakers eliminated the requirement for Algebra II, there is no longer a state-mandated exam that can measure the college readiness of nearly all high school students.

Instead, districts are left on their own to get students tested, and the data on college readiness come from a smaller pool of students who have taken one of the three tests used now.

Some districts have certified their high schools to become official testing centers for the Texas Success Initiative, so students can take the exams there. But it leaves a swath of graduating seniors who don’t opt to take one of the three exams out of the college readiness measurements. Though some districts pay for the exam, and low-income students may receive a financial waiver, each exam has a fee, which can be a deterrent to students.

“Anytime you shut down another avenue to qualify, that will happen,” said Edmund Oropez, chief academic officer for the Austin school district. “This first initial group, you’re seeing that impact. … We’re concerned that we will have a number of kids who are college ready but it’s not indicated by this one college measure.”

The numbers also are perplexing because more area students are taking dual-credit courses than in previous years, and some are even graduating with an associate degree through early college programs. In fact, some districts contend more of their students are better prepared for college than ever and question whether the state’s new way of measuring college readiness really reflects a student’s aptitude.

Students can meet standards in English and not math, for example, and can take college courses not affected by the math standard while in high school, but still not be considered college-ready because standards in both areas haven’t been met.

Examining only college readiness rates under the new methodology is “sending a message that the high schools aren’t doing what they’re supposed to and we’re losing ground, and that’s not true,” Elgin Superintendent Jodi Duran said. “Our numbers are growing exponentially. Four years ago, they weren’t even taking any dual-credit courses at the high school.”

The area’s college readiness rates could inch up once numbers are final, as a few districts’ results exclude students who demonstrated college readiness Before their junior year and some districts don’t have access to results for students tested off-site. The Class of 2016 graduates have through August to take one of the college entrance exams and meet standards.

Still, to improve the rates and ensure fewer students have to do remedial work before taking traditional college courses, districts will need to make changes. Some already are underway.

Most districts are now paying for sophomores and juniors to take the PSAT to familiarize them with college entrance exams. And now a few are giving students the option to take college entrance exams, such as the ACT, during regular school hours.

“We’ve begun to make curriculum changes that will address our kids doing better on these exams,” Oropez said. “We’ve been placing heavy emphasis on college readiness. … Whether its grad rates, or now college-ready rates, we’re confident as a Central Texas area that we’re going to continue to see increases.”

Studies show that performance on tests indicating college readiness is strongly correlated to family income and isn’t necessarily a reflection of a student’s grade-point average or work ethic.

Students admitted to the University of Texas who didn’t meet the standard, for example, often are within the top 8 percent of their graduating classes but usually attended an underserved or urban high school that didn’t offer the same kind of educational opportunities as those in more affluent suburban schools, said Hillary Procknow, the coordinator of the program that works with students who were admitted to UT but aren’t considered ready for college.

She said none of the tests measures whether students possess strong work habits, intellectual curiosity, self-management, and the ability to ask questions and work in groups, among other skills that are essential to success in college.

“The problem is we’re trying to increase the state’s college readiness numbers and we’re doing that by fixing numbers instead of preparing them by offering rigorous coursework … developing projects and working in groups and researching across disciplines,” she said.