Four states are collaborating on a new education project aimed at ensuring that no child is left behind in preparing for college and work. The project is part of GEAR UP, the federal effort to help students in Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs.
The states of Oklahoma, South Carolina, Missouri and Washington are "gearing up" to improve the connections between statewide tests and elementary, secondary and postsecondary curricula. For a common framework, the states will adopt the Standards for Transition developed by ACT Inc., sponsor of the ACT assessment.
The ACT assessment measures student knowledge and skills in the core subjects of mathematics, science reasoning, reading, and English. The Standards for Transition are descriptions of what students are likely to know and be able to do, based on their ACT scores.
"Educators generally agree that the Standards for Transition describe skills that are essential for success in the first year of college," says Oklahoma higher education chancellor Hans Brisch. "ACT scores are not just numbers; they reflect students' demonstration of important academic skills. Since GEAR UP is aimed at improving preparation for higher education, earlier knowledge of whether students are progressing can be critical to their success."
The seeds for the four-state collaboration were planted in 1993, when the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education implemented the ACT Educational Planning and Assessment System, or EPAS.
"EPAS is ACT's integrated system of assessments and tools that gives students information, beginning in the eighth grade, to help make both educational and career plans as they progress toward high school graduation.
With EPAS, students take ACT's EXPLORE tests in the eighth grade and PLAN tests in the 10th grade. Testing culminates in the 11th and 12th grades with the ACT exam.
Because of the visibility afforded Oklahoma EPAS through GEAR UP, states like Missouri, South Carolina and Washington have become interested in developing similar systems for their students.
"The Oklahoma regents, with GEAR UP support, are providing leadership with their partner states to address the need for students to get an early start in planning and preparing for college," said Don Carstensen, vice president, educational services at ACT. "Using an existing system, they are doing so in a most cost-effective, broad-based and scaleable fashion. ACT is pleased to provide support and technical assistance to this important effort."
Feedback to schools, students and parents is the critical element, Brisch added.
"The reports we provide, based on the Standards for Transition, not only help schools and parents gauge whether and how much their students are progressing, but also help schools determine the strengths and weaknesses of their curricula," said Brisch.
Representatives of Oklahoma, South Carolina, Missouri and Washington State will meet in Iowa City, Iowa March 27-29 to begin the two-year project. As the first step in the new GEAR UP K-16 collaboration, each of the four states will measure how well their respective state curriculum frameworks address the academic skills required for success in college.
For Washington State, this activity strengthens the state's goals for student preparation.
"Washington is committed to ensuring that all students are prepared to go to college," said Marc Gaspard, executive director of the Washington State Higher Education Coordinating Board. "GEAR UP is helping us achieve this vision by building strong academic partnerships between K-12 education and higher education in our state and across states."
South Carolina's focus is on making systemic impact.
"South Carolina's GEAR UP program is utilizing elements of the EPAS system currently," said Rayburn Barton, executive director of the South Carolina Commission on Higher Education. "From a systemic perspective, though, we are also interested in how the Standards for Transition framework could help South Carolina families prepare their children for a successful postsecondary experience."
Missouri's higher education commissioner Kala Stroup noted the potential benefits of the project to students in her state.
"While GEAR UP's primary focus is reducing and eliminating barriers, it is essential that curricula adequately prepare students for postsecondary education. This K-16 project will examine Missouri's K-12 framework and see what can be done to improve it," Stroup said. "Missouri's foundational work to improve student performance and ease transition from high school to college will benefit significantly from project findings."
This fall, early findings will be presented at the national GEAR UP meeting in Washington, DC. At the end of the two-year project, the states will present case studies to other states in an effort to share best practices for K-16 curriculum and assessment alignment.
Oklahoma’s statewide GEAR UP grant has been matched by more than $25 million from state and partner resources. With funds totaling $45.5 million, GEAR UP receives 45 percent of total funding from the federal government and 55 percent from other organizations.