Which Outcomes Should Minnesota Hold Its High Schools Responsible For?

Long before the pandemic, schools and communities recognized that a high school diploma is no longer enough. Today, eight in 10 Minnesota students graduate high school, but as more graduates look to a future amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they may question whether their high school has adequately prepared them to succeed in college or career.

Minnesota has taken steps to create programs to prepare students for life beyond high school, as well as collect critical information and data about those efforts. Yet the state has failed to incorporate postsecondary outcomes into the way it evaluates high school performance. It’s time to fix this mismatch.

Minnesota’s Post Secondary Enrollment Options (PSEO) program, which dates back to 1985, was the first-of-its-kind to help students complete high school and college coursework at the same time. Nearly 250,000 Minnesota students have benefited from this program since its inception, and that number doubles once you include Minnesota’s other dual enrollment programming.

In addition to information on the PSEO program, the state tracks student performance in Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate courses, as well as SAT and ACT results. Minnesota also tracks a variety of additional measures on high school graduates, such as postsecondary enrollment and employment outcomes like the number of hours worked, in what industry, and the hourly wages earned. 

Unfortunately, Minnesota’s efforts at data collection result in nice graphs on a website with little effect on student success. What is the point of data collection unless it informs programming, benefits students, and helps ensure all students are given equal opportunities?

High school leaders may think it’s unfair to hold them accountable for what happens outside their walls. But students need to be prepared for the world that awaits them, whether that is a pandemic-ravaged economy or remote college learning, and schools bear significant responsibility to provide that preparation.

As we emphasize in our new paper, accountability is a useful tool for ensuring schools help all students prepare for life after high school. Holding schools accountable for the effectiveness of their college and career preparation programs ensures that leaders monitor if those efforts are effective, and can make changes when they’re not. Moreover, measuring college and career outcomes for all students prevents schools from perpetuating deep-seeded inequities. 

Across the country, schools have a history of leaving disadvantaged students behind. 

In Minnesota, like many states, Black, Hispanic, and low-income students have less access to rigorous academic preparation and course offerings than their white and wealthier peers. While disadvantaged students have made progress over time, large disparities in access to college and career programming remain across Minnesota schools, including access to Advanced Placement courses, the PSEO program, and career and technical education classes. 

The results of Minnesota’s hands-off approach are stark. On the ACT, higher-income students in Minnesota outpace low-income students by nearly 30 percentage points in STEM readiness, and white students have a 23 percentage point advantage over students of color. The state must send a strong message that this is not acceptable: Schools are responsible for preparing all students to succeed in college or career. That starts with state rating systems.

Changes can’t happen overnight. But with the turmoil of the COVID-19 pandemic, parents and community members can lead the conversation about what high schools should be driving toward and what preparation they are responsible for by the time students walk across the graduation stage.