When it comes to education policy in the United States today, one thing is becoming increasingly clear: The structure of course work matters.
As states move to implement the Common Core State Standards, the positive impact that core course work and advanced study can have on college readiness is already evident in the SAT performance of recent high school graduates throughout Pennsylvania and the nation.
According to The College Board's 2012 SAT Report on College and Career Readiness, which was released this month, students who completed a core curriculum in high school did significantly better on the SAT than those who did not. A core curriculum is defined as four or more years of English and at least three or more years of math, science and social science or history.
Central to the report is the SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark, which measures the academic preparedness of groups of students for higher education and beyond. Achieving the benchmark score of 1550 on the SAT is linked to a 65 percent likelihood of earning a B- average or higher during freshman year of college, which in turn is linked to a strong likelihood of graduating from college within six years.
This year, 43 percent of all SAT takers achieved the benchmark, suggesting that more needs to be done to improve college readiness, even among college-bound students. The numbers are different, however, for those enrolled in a core curriculum. Forty-nine percent of SAT takers who completed a core curriculum achieved the benchmark, compared to only 30 percent of those who did not -- nearly a 20-point improvement.
A similar result can be seen in the mean scores of Pennsylvania's SAT takers, where the 77 percent who completed a core curriculum earned an average SAT score of 1523 -- a staggering 143 points higher than the average SAT score of Pennsylvania students who did not complete core course work.
Beyond underscoring the need for all college-bound students to complete core course work, the report also illustrates the positive impact that access to honors/Advanced Placement courses can have on college readiness. For example, honors/AP math students in Pennsylvania scored 90 points higher, on average, on the SAT.
But the only way to track what percentage of college-bound students is meeting the benchmark is to ensure they take the SAT in the first place, which is why The College Board has made a continuing effort to increase SAT participation, particularly among underserved minorities and low-income students. We have also intensified our efforts to expand access to and success in AP courses across the state.
In Pennsylvania, 19 percent of SAT-takers in the class of 2012 took the test for free through the SAT Fee-Waiver Service. Nationwide, the College Board dedicated more than $44 million to SAT fee-waivers and related services this past school year.
Our collective effort to democratize access to higher education is paying dividends. More than 1.66 million students from the class of 2012 took the SAT, 45 percent of whom were minority students and 36 percent of whom are the first in their families to attend college. In Pennsylvania, 23 percent of the state's more than 104,000 SAT takers were minority students and 37 percent reported being first-generation college-goers.
Standardized educational assessments may not be exciting or glamorous, but when they are valid and well-designed, they can tell us a lot about the state of education -- about how well we are preparing our children for postsecondary success and what we can do better.
As the new SAT report shows, increasing core curriculum completion rates and expanding access to advanced course work to qualified students of all backgrounds is the key to increasing college readiness and completion.
Kathryn Juric is vice president of The College Board's SAT Program (www.collegeboard.org). The SAT is administered annually to nearly 3 million students worldwide.