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According to the Florida Department of Education, Manatee High School was not a place parents should have wanted to send their children in 2006. The Bradenton-based school received a "D" rating on the state's A–F scale of academic performance that year while failing to meet federal No Child Left Behind proficiency standards for the fourth year in a row. At the same time, Boca Raton Community High School was flying high, having just earned its second straight "A" rating and being named among the best high schools in the country by Newsweek magazine.
But while Manatee got dismal marks from state and federal accountability schemes, it was actually quite successful in a number of important ways. It graduated a higher percentage of its students than Boca Raton and sent almost the same percentage of its graduates off to college. Once they arrived on college campuses, Manatee graduates earned higher grades and fewer of them failed remedial, not-for-credit math and English courses than their Boca Raton peers.
In other words, D-rated Manatee was arguably doing a better job at achieving the ultimate goal of high school: preparing students to succeed in college and careers. But because Florida's accountability systems didn't measure college and career success in 2006, nobody knew.
The goal of helping all students become college- and career-ready has become a focal point of American education. In announcing the guidelines for the $4.35 billion Race to the Top Fund in late 2009, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called for states to ensure that "students exiting one level are prepared for success, without remediation, in the next." This reflects a larger recent movement to improve high schools, one that has led states to adopt more rigorous academic standards, increase graduation requirements, and improve access to advanced courses.
But most high school accountability systems are lagging behind, failing to recognize college- and career-ready goals. Most high schools are rated on only two measures: graduation rates and student scores on basic skills tests given in a single year (usually ninth or 10th grade). While some states have added end-of-course or graduation exams as accountability measures, those exams have been plagued by lawsuits in some states and devalued by near-universal pass rates, after counting re-takes and alternate routes, in others.
Fortunately, a growing number of states have the tools to do better. Florida, Oregon, and Ohio are among states that have built powerful new data systems that track student progress after high school into the work force and college, allowing vital information to flow between K–12, higher education, and work-force information systems. While few states have all the components in place, many have some. Sixteen states are already publicly reporting the college remediation needs of public high school graduates. They have the ability to calculate the percentage of students in a specific high schools' graduating class who are in need of remedial coursework in college, who drop out of college, who earn successful grade point averages in their freshman year, and much more. States can also calculate the earnings of graduates who enter the work force, broken down by occupation and industry sector.
States can use these new data systems to create richer, more accurate, more multi-dimensional measures of high school success. Congress has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in state data systems in recent years—$245 million in federal 2009 stimulus funds were set aside for this purpose alone. Now, as federal lawmakers consider reauthorizing the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, they have the opportunity to use the dividends of that investment to solve one of the most vexing problems in K–12 policy: how to hold high schools accountable for preparing students to succeed in college and careers.