Early in my career as a budget analyst for the federal Department of Education, I became familiar with national education rankings. Over the years, I have reviewed countless reports. While measures are becoming more sophisticated, most national rankings oversimplify California’s results and mask significant progress.
Today more students than ever are succeeding in rigorous coursework in high school, developing college-level knowledge and skills. In the past several years, California’s high school students have surpassed national averages in pursuit of advanced placement courses, scores on college admission tests and overall preparedness for college. The results are impressive.
San Jose Unified was the first California school district in the late 1990s to set an expectation for all students to complete a college preparatory course load. East Side Union, Morgan Hill, Gilroy and Campbell high school districts now have similar requirements, and others, including Santa Clara Unified, are considering them.
Overall in Santa Clara County, 73 percent of high school students attend schools where their course of study is aligned with the admission requirements for California’s colleges and universities. The percentage of students completing these requirements here, 54 percent, is growing faster than the statewide percentage, now at 42 percent
Another positive trend is underway in advanced placement. These programs challenge students with high standards and enable them to enter college with advanced standing. Advanced placement has grown from 11 courses offered in the 1950s to more than 30 in public schools today. Throughout the nation, there is a concerted effort to ensure more diverse students pursue these classes.
In California, the number taking advanced placement exams has increased by 73 percent since 2005, with nearly 169,000 students in the class of 2015 taking at least one. California ranks fifth nationally in the percentage of that class scoring a 3 or higher on an advanced placement exam.
This is the second year that California students in grades 3-8 and 11 will complete new computer-based tests to measure college readiness. Results from grade to grade will help parents and educators gauge students’ strengths and weaknesses in relation to the state’s new college and career-oriented standards. The University of California, California State University, California Community Colleges and Association of Independent California Colleges endorse the standards and the state’s effort to provide clear and consistent messages about readiness for success.
Providing access to actionable data also is a growing trend. Nearly a quarter of a million California students in the class of 2015 prepared for the SAT by taking the PSAT, up from 133,028 in 2005. PSAT results also help districts identify students for advanced placement classes and eligibility for the National Merit Scholarship Program. Across the nation, districts are working to connect high school students to SAT practice questions online through the Khan Academy.
Participation rates for college admission tests continue to increase, with more than 242,000 California students taking the SAT and more than 122,000 taking the ACT in 2015. Individual scores also are improving. In 2015 California students scored higher in reading, math and writing on the SAT than students in New York, Florida and Texas. The number of California African-American and Latino students meeting the SAT’s college readiness benchmark has increased at a faster pace than in New York and Florida.
California’s colleges and universities are reporting unprecedented numbers of top-notch students applying. This is a signal that students recognize the stronger preparation now required for college and careers. But considerable work remains among educators to ensure access and equity are priorities statewide.
Michael Kirst is president of the California State Board of Education and professor emeritus of education at Stanford University. He wrote this for this newspaper.