University Preparedness

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A new report released by the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees the state’s universities, finds that nearly half of high school graduates don’t meet the criteria to enter one of Arizona’s three state universities. Board of Regents president Eileen Klein will discuss the report.

TED SIMONS: A new report by the Arizona board of regents finds that nearly half of the state's high school graduates do not meet the criteria to enter one of Arizona's three state universities. Here to talk about the report is board of regents president Eileen Klein. Good to see you again, thanks for being here. Let's talk about this report. What did the report look at, what did the report find?

EILEEN KLEIN: For the past several years the regents have been studying how well students are really prepared to do university-level work. This is a study that's been done periodically since the '80s and this year we found that fewer than half of our high school students are actually prepared to do university-level work. The really concerning part of that as though that's not alarming enough is that the study shows the results have largely been unchanged since the last time we did it in 2009.

TED SIMONS: What is going on out there?

EILEEN KLEIN: It's hard to say and that's exactly what we need to figure out. There have been a number of changes during this period of time and in some respects given all that K-12 has been through with funding issues and testing changes and everything else, we are somewhat glad that the numbers haven't gone down but we're quite concerned because overall, we're just not seeing the level of performance overall that we need to make sure that we have enough students who are prepared to go on and do postsecondary education work.

TED SIMONS: You mentioned no change in the past five years or so ago. Were you surprised by that?

EILEEN KLEIN: I was. I was surprised and, of course, disappointed because for a number of years as we did the study we were seeing pretty steady improvements among all groups of students. So what is also of concern is that students aren't performing equally well. We see that our Hispanic students and our Native American students in particular are still lagging their peers in their performance. Why does that concern us? Because we have minority-majority K-12 system and Hispanic students are our largest group of students so we're only going to be as successful as they are successful.

TED SIMONS: Is that achievement gap, is there a focus at the K-12 level on that? Have people actually been working on that or is that one of these things that continues and no one does too much about it?

EILEEN KLEIN: Well, for years we've known that different groups of students are performing differently. And, of course, the overriding concern for us is the number of our students who live in poverty, that's still a big determinant of how well students are going to be able to be going on to college and getting through college. But the reality is that we have great examples statewide, large schools, small schools, very diverse schools and they show time and again that they are able to get a large proportion of their students to go on to college. So what we need to understand is how they are successful and then how we can make sure that statewide, we've got greater consistency in the number of schools who can get larger numbers of students to get ready for college.

TED SIMONS: But are there metrics that actually can measure why some of these schools seem to achieve and others seem to lag?

EILEEN KLEIN: To me that's the next area of study that needs to be undertaken. We need to be sure, first of all, that all of the courses that students need to get prepared are being offered in those schools. That might be a challenge in some of our rural schools with stem teacher shortages or just the lack of resources comparatively so we need to understand that the courses are being offered that our schools actually understand what the requirements are and that it's more important than ever for the schools to be a key driver in getting students to make a plan for after high school. If two thirds of the jobs are going to require a postsecondary education credential, we need to work closely with our high schools to get students on that kind of planning track.

TED SIMONS: I noticed in the report that math was a big problem for kids. I mean, just not taking the right classes is one factor. But when those right classes include math, that seems to be compounding the issue.

EILEEN KLEIN: Correct. Math has long been a challenge and an obstacle. Math is also a great predictor of how well someone is going to do in college so students show up deficient in math, sadly, there's a good chance they won't make it through college and we need to really create math as a priority as we have done with other topics but look, the reality is that our admissions requirements are not asking students to master calculus. These are four elements of English, math, three years of lab science, two years of social science and a 2.5 GPA. Our public universities exist so that average students, good students can make it. They're not designed to be elite institutions and that's what causes this concern and a need for a larger statewide effort to focus on these outcomes.

TED SIMONS: And you mentioned statewide effort. I know there are regional efforts, as well. Rural schools obviously can have difficulties with resources and the whole nine yards. Is that what's at work here or is there something more?

EILEEN KLEIN: Well, we are seeing differences among our counties. So to be sure, Maricopa and Pima county, they both are -- their school districts are showing that they're sending more students on to college. Now, some of that is population-based but proportionally, we need to make sure that all of our counties and no matter what size the school is that they're equally able to send students. Our rural areas remain a challenge, you know, in attracting and keeping good teachers, but surely there are ways that we can figure out and we do see instances statewide where some schools have figured it out and that's what we need to replicate statewide.

TED SIMONS: So you've referred to this earlier and always seems to come back to this. Funding, money. Chronically underfunded schools in Arizona. This is just -- it's a tradition for lack of a better word. How much of an impact do you think that is really making on this kind of a study?

EILEEN KLEIN: Resources do matter and there are great disparities in resources among our different schools in K-12 but I'm not concerned that money is the only thing at play here. I do think that this need for alignment, for setting ambitions and aspirations for students, all of those factors matter, as well. And so as much we know the policy conversation is focused on resources and that's important, we also need to come together as a community whether it's university leaders, community college leaders, private sector educational leaders in our K-12 leaders along with our business community to say how can we make sure that all students have an equal shot?

TED SIMONS: And I know that this issue has been addressed in the past however, and it seems like again for five years, addressed, maybe not to a certain level but addressed nonetheless and we're just not seeing any improvement. Is this societal? Is there something that teachers and education officials, they can work as hard as they can but until the students want it and the parents want it and families and communities want it, it isn't going to happen?

EILEEN KLEIN: We find that students aspire to go on to college, no matter what kind of household circumstance they come from. So yes, they need the support of their parents, they need access to good teachers, they need to make sure they're exposed to the materials that will prepare them but we also want to make sure that we have college end of the line, that students also know that affordable educational opportunities are awaiting them and sometimes, students feel like well maybe they can't afford to go and so is it worth trying? And our point is that all of these things matter together, getting students ready and then making sure they have the financial wherewithal to go on to study at college.

TED SIMONS: So where do we go on? What's the recommendation? What's the conclusion? What do you want people to take from this?

EILEEN KLEIN: The first thing is this week the regents are going to take up a refreshed strategic plan and a new funding model for universities and at the heart of that is the notion of attainment, how we can partner more with the community to make sure people understand what the requirements are. You know, it's very true that if students aren't really prepared to go on to do university or college work, how well prepared are they going to be to go on into the workforce? We're going to make attainment a very big objective, and then from there begin to work to reorient a lot of the policies around that goal and also make sure that we're working with our policy makers so that they can align the systems between K-12 and higher education to produce better outcomes for students.

TED SIMONS: Are the policy makers ready to work with you?

EILEEN KLEIN: Well, I do see greater recognition among policy makers. They're very concerned, they want to create a very competitive environment for Arizona. They want Arizona to be a place that businesses are going to locate. And with the numbers we're seeing today, the sad fact is that our K-12 students aren't going to even be able to replace the educated workforce we have today. And we know that that even needs to increase so that our state is competitive. So I think that policy makers are connecting these dots more and more, and it's important this data get out there and we're glad to at least have people say what the true measure of success is for our K-12 students.

TED SIMONS: Well, all right. Good luck with that. I hope something comes of it in the next five years, we'll find some improved numbers. Thank you so much for being here.

EILEEN KLEIN: Thanks for the chance.

Eileen Klein: Board of Regents president

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