Early College for All

Last week, I wrote a press release about my school that was picked up by our local paper. I'm proud of the work that it represents and I'm proud of the students who make this possible. So, I want to share it here:

Two-Thirds of Meridian Grads Opt for Free First Year of College

SANFORD, MI - June 4, 2016 - One hundred twenty students walked across the stage at Meridian Public Schools commencement ceremony this past Thursday night, but only forty of them took home a diploma. That’s because the other eighty students – two-thirds of the graduating class – have chosen to participate in Meridian’s fifth year program for a free first year of college.

“As an early college high school, we are set up to offer all students five years of education,” said Patrick Malley, Meridian’s high school principal. “During students’ fifth year, they take a full-time course load with one of our early college partners.”

The majority of students will take courses at Delta College. Others have opted to earn vocational credentials through the Greater Michigan Construction Academy or Bayshire Beauty Academy.

None of the students participating in fifth year have to step foot on the high school campus. For the most part, they are treated just like any other first year college students.

“This graduating class has already earned over 1,600 college credits during their junior and senior years,” said Meridian Superintendent, Craig Carmoney. “Now, with so many of our students staying for fifth year, we estimate that over 90% of them will participate in postsecondary education.”

Meridian transitioned its high school to an early college four years ago, when the students in this class were just freshmen. According to Principal Malley, the decision to become an early college made sense considering the work they were already doing: “The district had just joined the New Tech Network in an effort to improve student success after high school. We had the support of our teachers, parents, community, and Board to re-imagine our high school to improve outcomes. We saw alignment between our work with New Tech and the Early College movement, so we went for it.”

As one of only twenty-two early college high schools in the state of Michigan, Meridian is offering students an experience that was unimaginable just five years ago. In the fifth year, students receive funding for tuition, books, and supplies. They also get monthly gas cards to help offset the cost of transportation, and are assigned a laptop that they can use in the classroom and take home. Additionally, they are linked with an Early College Coach who supports them through their first year college experience.

“Our goal is to remove as many barriers to college and career success as possible for these students,” said Superintendent Carmoney.
What are the other third of the class not staying for the extra year doing next year? Most of them applied for an early graduation after just four years and are going on to a university, the military, or to work in a family business. Because of the opportunities offered, only a few of them graduated undecided about their next step after high school.

“While our evaluation of the success of this program will have to wait until students finish their fifth year, the early results appear very positive,” said Malley. “By eliminating the major stumbling blocks to college success – funding, transportation, and support – we anticipate we’ll see our first year college completion rates more than double our ten year average.”

Based on the program's past success and the number of students participating, it is likely that over eighty percent of Meridian graduates will earn a year of college credits before exiting the program.

According to Amy Boxey, Dean of Student Transitions at Meridian, some will even graduate with over 60 credits.

“Our goal is to send students to postsecondary programs once they are able to show us that they are ready,” said Boxey. “Students who demonstrated readiness their junior year went to college. More were ready and went to college during senior year. Now that these students are entering the fifth year, the opportunity has opened to all. We look forward to supporting so many of our students on their next step after high school.”

The Problem with Boys

As previously mentioned, my high school is now dual enrolling more students than ever — about ten times more. A quarter of all juniors and seniors took half their classes at the community college last semester as part of our early college efforts.

By most measures, these students did very well. As a group, they earned over 95% of the credits they attempted with an average GPA over 3.0. They were, after all, able to dual enroll because of their past performance on standardized tests and high school coursework. They went to college because we thought they were "ready."

Yet, unsurprisingly, not all students performed equally well. About 15% of our dual enrolled students ended the semester with a college GPA below a 2.0.  A few students even experienced their first academic failure in college. So, even within our high average of success, not all students shared the same experience. 

First Semester 2014-15 Dual Enrollment GPA Distribution (N=67)

First Semester 2014-15 Dual Enrollment GPA Distribution (N=67)

We consider this fact — that some students didn't do as well as expected — to be a really big deal. It means that our algorithm for credentialing students for college readiness isn't yet perfect. To be clear, we didn't expect it to be, and while we acknowledge that reaching "perfect" isn't probable, wanting perfect gives us reason to dig into our data in hopes of finding some clues that will help us identify relative risk in the future.

Our biggest takeaway?

Boys did much worse in college coursework than girls — a whole grade point worse, on average.

Girls earned college GPAs that were 1.05 points higher than boys, on average.

Girls earned college GPAs that were 1.05 points higher than boys, on average.

This is despite the fact that girls and boys performed equally on both the COMPASS and ACT assessments, which we use to determine eligibility for college-level coursework. We're talking less than 0.01 difference between boys and girls on these tests.

Being a boy had a stronger negative effect on student success than any other factor: free/reduced status, high school GPA, etc. At the same time, these factors still added to the risk — going to college as a boy receiving free lunch with a high school GPA below 3.0 was clearly tough — these students earned an average GPA below 1.5 in college.

The average college GPA for girls receiving free lunch with a high school GPA below 3.0: a respectable 2.5.  

What now?

We certainly can't increase our requirements for boys above that of girls without raising some eyebrows. What we can do is educate parents and students on the relative risks of going to college and how our data should inform that risk. While hope will likely spring eternal for most, some students may delay college entry in hopes of better results down the road.

We can also raise our expectations overall since doing so would result in sending fewer students with high school GPAs below 3.0. Even though most boys saw their GPA decline in college, the decline was less detrimental on students that started college with a high school GPA that was above 3.0. This seems obvious. It is good to have data to back this up now.

Lastly, I think it's crucial that we think of new ways to support students, specifically these struggling boys, while in college. To do this appropriately, we're going to have to get to know our boys a bit better to start to decipher what is going on. Is it maturity? Is it social expectations? Is it video games? We need to learn more about what is going on with them so that we can build in better supports for them to be successful.

Predicting College Success

I spent my morning analyzing the grades of the sixty-seven juniors and seniors who dual enrolled from my school this past semester. Of the 464 college credits attempted, 440 were earned, giving us a pass rate just a hair under ninety-five percent. Half the group had a college GPA above a 3.43. I'd say this is pretty good news for our first cohort of New Tech students taking college classes.

One of the goals of my analysis was to assess how well we predicted college readiness amongst these young advanced students. While only four of the sixty-seven students who dual enrolled experienced failure, some students still performed worse than expected. Pushing students to college too early could potentially blemish their college transcript. Defining "ready" has therefore become a really big deal.

Aligning our thinking with both our college partner and the state, we placed the greatest weight on students' college entrance exam scores last year. In deciding who got to go, we let test scores trump all other valid readiness indicators such as high school GPA, teacher perception, etc.

So, how did that work out for us?

The worst predictor of student success for us was their score earned on the COMPASS, taken by our current juniors who had not yet taken the ACT. The COMPASS is used by our community college partner to place students into courses at appropriate levels. For us, it turned out that the COMPASS provided only a minor ability to predict college success (r=0.25).

The correlation between student COMPASS scores and college GPA was a low r=+0.25.

The correlation between student COMPASS scores and college GPA was a low r=+0.25.

Coming in second was the ACT assessment, taken by all juniors in the state of Michigan. The ACT proved to be a fair predictor of college success (r=0.44).

The correlation between student ACT scores and college GPA was a moderate r=+0.44.

The correlation between student ACT scores and college GPA was a moderate r=+0.44.

The best predictor of college success turned out to be student GPA (r=0.76).

The correlation between student high school GPA and college GPA was a high r=+0.74.

The correlation between student high school GPA and college GPA was a high r=+0.74.

While the state of Michigan allows schools to use varied methods of determining college readiness before allowing students to dual enroll, it is interesting that they will not not allow GPA be a primary determining factor, given it's apparent ability to correctly predict student success.

What we will most likely do in the future, given this data, is create a single numerical value for each student that takes into account their college entrance exam score and their high school GPA. This would appear to provide some additional predictive ability (r=+0.82 to r=+0.86) not possible using test scores alone.

UPDATE—January 30, 2015: Looking at this with fresh eyes, I think it's important to point out that we used the minimum COMPASS and ACT scores required for college-level coursework placement with our community college partner as our cutoff for allowing students to dual enroll. We did not use the state minimum scores, which are higher. It is logical that using the higher scores would have increased these assessments' predictive ability. We are choosing to use the lower scores to increase access with the hope of keeping risk to a minimum for our students.