Basic Skills for Success in College and Careers

April 21, 2014

States can increase the number of adults earning postsecondary credentials if they make basic skills and English language services more effective for those whose educations stopped at high school or earlier. The most innovative state policy work on adult basic skills education blends basic skills and English language services with postsecondary education and training, and includes more proactive advisory services, college success courses, peer support, and other student support strategies.

Such innovation is occurring both in the adult basic education system―which provides literacy and numeracy services up to the postsecondary level, GED preparation, and English language services―and in developmental education―which provides pre-college reading, writing, math, and English language services within postsecondary education institutions.

In addition to student success strategies, some promising approaches in this area are state actions to:

  • Create “bridge” programs that blend the reach and content of adult basic education, GED, English language services, and developmental education with job-specific skills in pathways leading to family-supporting jobs;
  • Provide pathways from adult basic education and GED to college enrollment, including cross-walking assessments (analyzing the content and doing a side-by-side comparison of assessment tests so students results on one assessment can be used to extrapolate performance on another assessment), aligning content, providing advice on college options, and promoting college attendance;
  • Set new goals and performance measures for adult basic education, GED, English language services, and developmental education related to college and career success;
  • Mandate a common community college assessment test statewide in order to communicate clear expectations for college readiness in math, reading and writing, and to enable the state to track student progress;
  • Require that college academic assessment be coupled with personalized academic and career guidance so students can find the best fit for their skills and goals among basic and developmental education options connected to college and career pathways;
  • Make adult basic education and developmental education more relevant to students by contextualizing with examples and applications in the students’ college and career pathways;
  • Offer dual or concurrent enrollment in basic skills and English language and workforce education across education sectors, such as adult basic education, developmental education, community colleges, and workforce development; and
  • Deliver bridge programs and other postsecondary workforce education in the workplace in partnership with employers.

National Resources for State Policy Makers

Beyond Basic Skills: State Strategies to Connect Low-Skilled Adults to an Employer-Valued Postsecondary Education
Marcie Foster, Julie Strawn, and Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield. CLASP (2011).
This report describes strategies that state policymakers can use to strengthen connections between basic skills education and postsecondary education to help lower-skilled adults and out-of-school youth attain the postsecondary credentials they need to advance in the labor market.

Setting Up Success in Developmental Education: How State Policy Can Help Community Colleges Improve Student Success Outcomes
Michael Lawrence Collins. Jobs for the Future (2009).

This issue brief describes how the 15 states participating in the Achieving the Dream initiative have concentrated their policy efforts on four key areas: Preventative Strategies, Assessment and Placement, Implementation and Evaluation of Program Innovation, and Performance Measurement and Incentives. Achieving the Dream is a national initiative to improve student success in community colleges that has taken a multipronged approach to improving outcomes in developmental education.

Adult Education for Work: Transforming Adult Education to Build a Skilled Workforce
National Center on Education and the Economy (2009).

This guide outlines specific steps that policymakers, program administrators, and providers can take to begin transforming their current adult education programs into Adult Education for Work programs. It provides: a vision for how comprehensive career pathways can be constructed to better meet our nation’s skill needs; a framework for organizing and effective Adult Education for Work programs, with 23 quality elements designed to prepare adults for both postsecondary learning and work; and benchmarks and promising practices that illustrate quality elements already in action in programs across the country. It includes a self-assessment tool that program administrators and providers can use to evaluate the status of current program designs and offerings against the recommended set of benchmarks, identify gaps, and plan strategically for needed change.

Challenge and Opportunity: Rethinking the Role and Function of Developmental Education in Community College.
Thomas Bailey. Community College Research Center, Teachers College, Columbia University (2008).

This paper examines research on students who begin community college in need of developmental education, whether these students are successful in postsecondary education, and what constitutes effective developmental education programs.  The paper concludes that most developmental education is ineffective in helping students overcome academic weaknesses.  Broad developmental education reform is needed, using a comprehensive approach to assessment and more rigorous research that explicitly tracks students with weak academic skills through their early experiences at community colleges.  The paper suggests blurring the distinction between developmental and “college-level” students to improve the quality of teaching for both groups. Strategies to streamline developmental programs and accelerate student progress in college-level work are also important.

Developmental Education Toolkit
Thomas G. Greene. Community College Bridges to Opportunity Initiative, University of Texas-Austin (2008).

This toolkit contains worksheets, policy questions and communications tools designed to help state and education leaders assess the need for community college developmental education.  It provides support for reshaping policy to assist community college efforts to reduce the number of students entering college underprepared and improve the success of students who are underprepared but already enrolled.  It examines current and emerging policy trends in developmental education. 

It’s Not About the Cut Score: Redesigning Placement Assessment Policy to Improve Student Success. Michael Lawrence Collins. Achieving the Dream and Jobs for the Future (2008). 

Community colleges can increase student success by using placement procedures to assess the academic skills of entering students so they are placed in appropriate courses. This policy brief describes the experiences of three states as they revised their placement assessment policies.  It contains statistics on numerous other states.

Policies to Promote Adult Education and Postsecondary Alignment.
Julie Strawn. National Commission on Adult Literacy (2007).

This paper discusses state and federal policy solutions for helping lower-skilled adults overcome key obstacles to earning the postsecondary credentials that can put them on a path to family-supporting jobs.  Major attention is given to the lack of alignment between federal and state adult education efforts, job training services, and postsecondary education policies.

Strengthening State Adult Education Policies for Low-Skilled Workers.
Amy-Ellen Duke and Evelyn Ganzglass. Working Poor Families Project (2007).

This brief provides an overview of state adult education policies and programs and recommends ways they can be strengthened to provide better job advancement opportunities for lower-skilled adults and older youth.

Workplace Education:  Twenty State Perspectives.
James T. Parker. National Commission on Adult Literacy (2007). 

This policy brief, prepared for the National Commission on Adult Literacy, describes approaches to funding, operating, and evaluating state workplace education programs that provide contextualized basic skills instruction to incumbent workers.

Bridges to Careers for Low-Skilled Adults: A Program Development Guide.
Women Employed, Chicago Jobs Council and UIC Great Cities Institute (2005).

This guide is for program developers, managers, and coordinators who want to know how to build bridge programs that integrate adult basic skills education with postsecondary education and training to increase student retention and success. The guide explains bridge program initial development, financing, program implementation and management, and evaluation and improvement techniques. It also contains profiles of 11 existing bridge programs.

State Policy Examples

Minnesota FastTRAC (Training, Resources and Credentialing).
FastTRAC is supported by Shifting Gears with the goal of creating a state-level "stackable credentials" education and training framework for low-wage, low-skilled adults (age 25-55) that integrates Adult Basic Education (ABE), non-credit occupational training, and for-credit postsecondary degree and certificate programs. Featured elements of FastTRAC programs include career pathways development towards industry-recognized credentials, contextualized curricula in high-demand industries, flexible entry points, connections to regional job needs, support services to encourage adult student persistence and robust data collection to track student success and persistence. Minnesota FastTRAC is currently supporting pilot sites for these programs across the state. 

Wisconsin RISE (Regional Industry Skills Education).
As part of a larger effort to create industry-driven career pathways to help low-skilled adults obstain a postsecondary credential in high demand occupations, Wisconsin is developing pilot bridge programs across the Wisconsin Technical College System (WTCS). These bridge programs use an integrated education and training approach, providing Adult Basic Education/English language learning in conjunction with occupational and/or technical training. The Wisconsin RISE partnership is supported by the Shifting Gears initiative.

Illinois Shifting Gears.
Illinois' bridge programs were developed to address “leakage points” in the pipeline of students leading to obtaining a postsecondary credential. Many students fail to progress 1) between developmental education and college-level coursework and 2) between adult education/English literacy and postsecondary education, which prompted Illinois to target these transitions and develop adult education and developmental education "bridge" programs, which integrate the development of basic academic skills with occupational education in four high-demand sectors: manufacturing, health care, transportation/distribution/logistics, and green jobs. The state's Shifting Gears partners have adopted a common definition of bridge program core elements for use across four state systems: adult education, community college, technical education and workforce development. View the evaluation and discussion of promising practices from six Illinois bridge programs.

Kentucky’s Adult Education/Developmental Education Bridges into Career Pathways.
This initiative is aimed at creating integrated remediation customized to specific occupational career pathways. It builds on the statewide career pathways initiative, which began in 2003 by focusing on the basic skills portion of the pathway.  State grants fund curriculum redesign and integration of basic skills, workforce development, and academic transfer coursework.

Oregon Pathways for Adult Basic Skills Transition to Education and Work.
Oregon has begun an initiative that seeks sustainable change in its adult education systems, using links to postsecondary education and training and One-Stop Centers .  The state plans a series of courses at pre-bridge, bridge, and college/career readiness levels, with standard format lesson plans that integrate training needed for the state’s high-demand occupations.

Washington State I-BEST Program.
Washington’s Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) program is a model bridge program that integrates education in basic skills with technical instruction.  The percentage of students who earn their first 15 college credits is substantially higher if they are part of the I-Best program (53 percent), compared to basic skills students who attempt college coursework in other ways (11 percent for stand-alone English as a Second Language).  In addition, I-BEST students were substantially more likely to earn certificates during their first year. View additional research on the effectiveness of I-BEST.

Sources of State Data

Adult Education Annual Report to Congress, 2004-2005.
U.S. Department of Education (2007).

This report summarizes data on more than 2.5 million learners enrolled in state-administered grant programs implemented under the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act.

Adult Learning in Focus: National and State-by-State Data.
Council for Adult and Experiential Learning and National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (2008).

This report contains state-by-state information on the number of adults attaining degrees and whether financial aid exists for part-time students, among other topics.

Mounting Pressures Facing the U.S. Workforce and the Increasing Need for Adult Education and Literacy.
Dennis Jones and Patrick Kelly. National Commission on Adult Literacy (2007). 

This presentation compares educational attainment by country and provides demographic-based statistics for U.S. states.

National Assessment of Adult Literacy: State and County Estimates of Low Literacy.
IES National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education (2009).

This report estimates the percentages of adults who lack basic prose literacy skills in U.S. states and counties, using data for 2003 and 1992. This new data is currently the only available snapshot of adult literacy rates for individual states and counties.

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