Information link elusive between high schools and colleges

The graduation handshake
A young man in gown and mortarboard gets his ceremonial handshake at the Washburn High School graduation ceremony on June 12, 2006. Legislator are looking at the possibility of allowing the sharing of information between high schools and colleges.
Courtesy of Washburn High School in Minneapolis

As soon as students walk through their first college classroom door, they are a wealth of information. Their value only increases as they navigate their educational course from there. But in Minnesota, it's difficult to trace students' information back to figure out how well or poorly their educational histories prepared them.

"Did they participate in a high school foreign language course? Is that a predictor of college participation and success? How likely are the students who participated in vocational opportunity in high school more likely to enroll in and complete the college degree versus others?" asks Susan Heegaard, director of the Minnesota Office of Higher Education.

Heegaard is championing the change in the state's Data Practices Law to allow what's known as a longitudinal data stream. That means researchers could follow students progress throughout their educational career as long as the student remained in Minnesota--something that might be useful, for instance, when trying to reduce the number of college freshman taking remedial courses.

"Are there certain things that we might be able to learn that would allow us to put money behind the things that work?" Heegaard asks. "If we had better practices that we could address in k-12 we might be able to chip away and bring those remediation numbers down so we don't have to educate students in the same subject twice."

Remediation rates are just the kind of thing Craig Schoenecker would like a better handle on. He's assistant director of research at the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities. He's working on a pilot project with the University of Minnesota to identify early signs that a student might require remedial help in college.

If we had better practices that we could address in k-12 we might be able to chip away and bring those remediation numbers down.

"Did they take intermediate algebra in high school or did they stop at mathematics? That information would be very useful in understanding the patterns of success, the need to take remedial or developmental courses," Schoenecker said.

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His research aims to answer those questions, but the current system requires labor-intensive backtracking for each student. The proposed new language would assign each student a unique number that stays with them through college. That would allow researchers to track kids from kindergarten through graduate school.

The percentage of students taking developmental courses in college ticked up slightly last year according to the most recent data available from the Office of Higher Education. But there's no way to know if any of those students specifically came from Minnesota high schools, or whether those needing remediation avoided certain opportunities for preparation.

A national effort to align k-12 and college student data nationwide is underway led by a group called the Data Quality Campaign. The campaign is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation among others. Minnesota has many of the ingredients for smooth information sharing, but remains hindered by the information gap between the two departments, says Aimee Guidera with the Data Quality Campaign.

"When you have that kind of specific information it then forces you to ask questions of 'wow--what can we do differently, where may their be gaps in the development of our teachers, maybe in the curriculum we're using?" she said.

Good data can help high schools and colleges account for the long-term success of students, Guidera said.

"Without a data system--that can talk to one another--we don't know how our students are doing," Guidera said. "We have aggregate information about remediation rates, but we don't have specific information about specific students and how they're doing and being able to give that information back to the k through 12 system to gauge how they're doing, how they're preparing their students for success after high school."

The Minnesota Department of Education supports the change. Only a handful of states currently streamline information sharing between high schools and colleges. Even if it is adopted in Minnesota, it allows independent and private colleges to opt out.