Report: High School Reform at Risk Without Better Data

Sep 08, 2011, 08:55 ET from Educational Testing Service (ETS)

PRINCETON, N.J., Sept. 8, 2011 /PRNewswire/ -- In the high-stakes movement to reformulate the mission of our nation's high schools to focus on student readiness for college and careers, a new research report from Educational Testing Service (ETS) calls for better data and a broader understanding of the variety of issues affecting students, society, and the economy.

The report, "The Mission of the High School: A New Consensus of the Purposes of Public Education," challenges the current wisdom that all high school students should get the same focus – college and career readiness. Authors Paul E. Barton and Richard J. Coley note that many jobs today don't require college and that career and technical education programs are necessary and effective. They also point out that high schools lack a sufficient supply of guidance counselors to direct students into programs and keep them on track. They also highlight the mismatch between skills taught in high school and those employers need, and contend that reform efforts ignore the serious dropout issue.

"This report is not intended to present a case for or against this new high school reform movement, but to suggest that redefining and redirecting the public education system is a hugely important task that merits deep thought and much examination given its importance to society, democracy, and our economy," says Coley, Director of ETS's Policy Information Center.  

The authors review the long history of high school reform, the role of college placement tests, job demands, impact of Common Core State Standards, and a stagnant high school completion rate. If reform efforts are to succeed, Barton and Coley suggest the following questions need answers:

  • What defines college and work readiness and how are these definitions applied?

  • What do we know about more applied learning approaches such as career and technical education and multiple pathways approaches?

  • What is missing from a narrow focus on reading and mathematics and what are the effects of that narrowing on students and our society?

  • What is the effect of the dismal state of the high school guidance function on helping students pursue the right academic and career choices?

  • What obstacles does the high school dropout situation impose on meeting the goal of having all students college and career ready?

In the readiness for work area, the authors illustrate the disconnect between skills taught in high school and those valued by employers. At the top of employers'  lists were soft skills such as "professionalism and work ethic," skills not typically imparted in the high school curriculum. When employers say they want employees with better mathematical and reading ability, they typically mean the ability to apply knowledge and skills in workplace settings.

"Much is known about the requirements for work," says Barton, "and little or none of it fits the model of a single curriculum to fit the needs of all high school students."

In the area of college readiness, the authors point out that postsecondary institutions vary tremendously in what they require students to know and be able to do to qualify for college entrance and credit work. They also make the case that more knowledge and understanding is needed about how to tie high school curricula and standards to the varying and moving targets of college readiness set by higher education institutions.

The authors note that in developing common standards, the United States has looked to nations that exceed it in Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMMS) scores. This fails to recognize that many of the countries that surpass the United States in these averages have career and technical education approaches.

"Twenty-four percent of Japan's secondary students are in vocational programs, as are 29 percent in Korea, and a whopping 72 percent in the United Kingdom," says Coley.  "All of these countries had higher scores in eighth-grade mathematics than did the United States in the latest TIMMS assessment."

In the area of guidance counseling, Barton and Coley point out that on average, the U.S. K–12 public school system has one guidance counselor for every 467 students. In addition to the general shortage of such counselors, many are performing tasks that take them away from helping students. This includes managing schedule changes, coordinating testing programs, handling transcripts, and mailing student enrollment records.  

"Adequate staffing and support for the guidance counseling function needs to be recognized as important in increasing graduation rates and supporting achievement in the classroom by helping students cope with a variety of problems and issues that may hold them back," Barton says.

The authors review sixteen years of graduation rates for public secondary schools and find that overall, the picture is one of stagnation. Allowing for minor fluctuations, the graduation rate in 1990-91 was 73.7 percent. In 2006-07 it was 73.9 percent.  

"We are losing a tremendous amount of human capital each day when, on average, 7,000 students drop out of high school. Little progress has been made over the past 20 years in reducing the dropout rate," Coley says.  

"A new conventional wisdom has developed about the central purposes of the public education system and its relationship to higher education and the world of work," Barton says. "To make judgments about this new formulation of purpose, we need to understand the dynamics that have led to such a large percentage of college freshmen who end up in remedial courses, and where course corrections need to occur."

"We need to recognize that we are reformulating the purposes we assign to a public education system that encompasses kindergarten through the 12th grade," Barton adds. "The hope is that this report provides useful information, raises important questions, and identifies areas where we need to know more as such momentous measures are proposed and enacted.  

Download "The Mission of the High School: A New Consensus of the Purposes of Public Education" for free at Copies also are available by writing to the Policy Information Center, c/o ETS, MS 19-R, Rosedale Road, Princeton, NJ 08541-0001; by calling 1-609-734-5694; or by sending an e-mail to

About ETS

At ETS, we advance quality and equity in education for people worldwide by creating assessments based on rigorous research. ETS serves individuals, educational institutions and government agencies by providing customized solutions for teacher certification, English language learning, and elementary, secondary and post-secondary education, as well as conducting education research, analysis and policy studies. Founded as a nonprofit in 1947, ETS develops, administers and scores more than 50 million tests annually — including the TOEFL® and TOEIC® tests, the GRE® tests and The Praxis Series™ assessments — in more than 180 countries, at over 9,000 locations worldwide.

Tom Ewing

SOURCE Educational Testing Service (ETS)