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At the University of Wisconsin-Madison:
Emerging College Admission Procedures Respond to K-12 Reform

by Christine Maidl Pribbenow and Allen Phelps

Recent educational reforms have called for the advancement of performance standards and alternative learning experiences for students, such as work-based learning or apprenticeships. These reforms, however, have the potential to negatively impact students' transition into colleges and universities. The alternative forms of assessing performance necessary for these reforms may be incompatible with letter grades and Carnegie units generally reported on traditional college applications. As a result, high school staff and parents often discourage students from enrolling in career-oriented courses and activities for fear that this will affect their chances for college admission. At the same time, educators have a difficult time incorporating standards into their curriculum when portfolios and other formats used to document student performance are unrecognizable to admissions staff. These issues have motivated educators in a handful of states to reconsider the admission procedures being used in their public universities.

Four states--Wisconsin, California, Oregon, and Washington--are leading the national dialogue and movement towards using performance- or competency-based assessments in college admissions. In 1998, NCRVE researchers from UW-Madison (Christine Maidl Pribbenow and L. Allen Phelps) and UC-Berkeley (Derek Briggs and David Stern) explored what these policies entailed and how they were being used to support students' transition into college. In general, new policies in these four states rely less on "traditional" measures of college preparedness--grade point average, class rank, and a transcript of courses--and more on criterion-referenced measures of competency in content areas (e.g., English, mathematics) and process areas (e.g., writing, problem solving). The states are similar in their willingness to challenge a process that has remained unchanged for decades. Yet because these new admission procedures are being implemented within the political and educational context in each state, differences in practice exist among them.

The University of Wisconsin System's Competency-based Admissions(CBA) policy was designed to give admissions officers an alternative method to assess "diversely prepared" students' readiness for admissions at any of the thirteen four-year campuses. High school faculty use a Standardized Reporting Profile (SRP) to identify the five content areas in which students are expected to achieve competency--English, mathematics, science, social studies, and foreign languages. This profile has been successfully pilot tested with eleven high schools across the state. Follow-up research through NCRVE suggests that the CBA policy is most useful for students who enroll in career-intensive activities in high school when educators accurately reflect these experiences on the SRP. The CBA policy might also be used more regularly as educators work to align newly implemented statewide academic standards with the competencies listed on the SRP.

The Transitions Project in California grew out of a collaboration between a small group of local educators, state universities, and national organizations. The project's mission has been to accelerate secondary school reform by designing instruments that report student achievement in the language of performance. These alternative transcripts identify the specific concepts and skills in which students are expected to become proficient. They have been and continue to be pilot tested at a select number of high schools, with students applying to both the University of California and California State University systems.

Both Oregon's and Washington's newest initiatives stem from legislative mandates to create a seamless and aligned K-16 system of education. Both states require students to demonstrate proficiency in a number of disciplinary areas, which are then capstoned through the designation of certificates of mastery. Students are also required to show competency in a number of process areas (e.g., writing, problem solving). To accomplish this, Oregon's Proficiency-based Admissions Standards System (PASS) and Washington's competency-based admissions standards were developed to prepare students for entry into college and to help them make better choices regarding their career goals. Extensive statewide reforms are currently being implemented in the K-12 system; the first class of students to use the new university admission policies will matriculate early in the new millennium.

Many questions remain as these states continue to implement and test new admissions policies:

  1. How are students advantaged or disadvantaged in their pursuit of postsecondary education
    and career goals when they are prepared in programs emphasizing both vocational and academic standards?

  2. How are new and emerging educational reforms reflected in alternative admissions procedures?

  3. How successful are students who have been admitted through the use of new admissions policies?

NCRVE researchers will continue to follow and document the success of various states as they respond to K-12 reform through the development of new admissions policies. For a more extensive discussion and the final results of this project, please refer to the final report to be published in fall 1999.

Christine Maidl Pribbenow,director of the NCRVE project Changing Admission Procedures in Four-Year Colleges to Support K-12 Reform, is a doctoral candidate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

L.Allen Phelps is the site director of NCRVE's University of Wisconsin site.

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