Judge early college programs' success by the big picture

Students in the Hidalgo Independent School District physics classroom work on a project at Hidalgo Early College High School. Photo by Bob Daemmrich

At the end of the 2016 school year, the Austin American-Statesman reported a surprising outcome: College readiness numbers had dropped in all eight Central Texas school districts, even though "more area students are taking dual-credit courses than in previous years, and some are even graduating with an associate degree through early college programs."

The preliminary 2016 numbers may well turn out to be a blip rather than a trend; it was the first year that college readiness could not be established by performance on a state-mandated exam. However, the story's linking of college readiness numbers to the early college high school initiative provides an important reminder: Such programs should remain a means, not an end. Making it easier for high school students to receive college credits is not a significant accomplishment if it doesn't lead to more students obtaining higher levels of education.

The rapid growth of early college in Texas is great news if we're reaching students otherwise unlikely to go to college. If instead we're mainly furnishing a more affordable source of college credits for students who are already college-bound, it may not change the overall picture of educational attainment in Texas in the way we intend.

The origin of early college high school programs is in something called middle colleges: small schools serving at-risk students, typically located on a community college campus. The idea was to so thoroughly integrate the administration of the two institutions, and to provide such careful academic and behavioral supports, that you create a sort of academic slingshot, propelling students at risk of dropping out of high school along a seamless track to postsecondary education. Some of Texas' most successful such programs, for example Trini Garza on the campus of Mountain View College in Dallas, still follow this model closely.

But as Texas has moved aggressively toward early college high schools — opening nearly 100 in the past three years alone — parts of the model have dropped away. An early college school now is often an academic track added to an existing comprehensive high school. Although described as a program targeting students at risk of dropping out of high school, by statute and in practice the initiative in Texas now is also for students "who wish to accelerate completion of the high school program," which includes advanced students.

The careful administrative integration of high schools and their college partners will be harder to maintain as the initiative scales up; South Texas College, for example, is singlehandedly teaming with 29 different early college high schools. In a 2013 narrative study on three graduates from different early college high schools in Texas, none reported having received help or mentoring from a high school counselor, and indeed all three cited the absence of adult oversight as a source of difficulties for themselves or their peers.

If the students fueling the early college boom in Texas are largely academically advanced self-starters, then it may not be the game-changer we're looking for to get more students from historically underrepresented groups to bachelor's degrees. Worse, it may not be the optimal preparation for those students. Other avenues for college-level work during the high-school years, such as advanced placement classes, are likely to be more challenging. Statewide, only about half of advanced placement students are able to get scores that can qualify for college credit, whereas in dual credit classes, which lack accountability to a national exam, 96 percent of students pass. High school administrators rate dual credit classes as more effective than advanced placement classes in aiding college enrollment — but as less rigorous.

If we are worried about students at risk of not enrolling in college, early college (with lots of support) is likely to be a gain for them. But if they're already aiming for college and the question is how prepared they will be when they arrive, it may not be. We should not lightly guide low-income college aspirants toward an academic program less challenging than the advanced placement classes their suburban peers are taking if we expect them all to soon be sharing a classroom at a four-year college.

You would hope that the adults in the system are sensitive to these nuances and that counselors are, as Texas ECHS advises, reaching students not previously on a college preparatory track (including those with disciplinary issues and attendance problems).

But some of the evidence is worrisome. After launching early college in 2011-2012, Austin ISD graduated its first set of early college students, from Reagan and LBJ High Schools, in May 2015. Noting that 60 seniors at the two schools had taken some college courses during their four years, versus only 31 students five years previously, Austin Community College's early college high school director asserted, "When you think of where these schools were five years ago, it's really impressive."

But the picture is actually far more equivocal, at least at LBJ. From 2010 to 2014, the number of LBJ juniors and seniors taking an AP test fell from 249 to 36, and the percentage of graduates even taking the SAT or ACT fell from 84 percent to 64 percent.

Two absolutely critical elements of the early college model are that be more challenging than what it replaces and that it come with thoughtful advising from adults about the student's long-term educational plans. Let's not let those get lost as we extend early college across the state, so we can keep early college as the academic acceleration it was designed to be.

Charles Moody

Former teacher