Linked learning promotes grad rates if not test scores

Linked learning promotes grad rates if not test scores

(Calif.) Students enrolled in linked learning programs over the past four years outperformed their peers in traditional classrooms when it came to earning high school credits and completing advanced college readiness courses, according to a new study released Tuesday.

But the report from SRI International and the Irvine Foundation found only mixed results when comparing scores on standardized testing between students in the project-based learning system and their counterparts who were not.

The study comes as the state rolls out an unprecedented $250 million investment in school-to-work grants largely aimed at promoting linked learning – although researchers said none of the study’s results should diminish support for the effort.

“The results are promising, suggesting that linked learning is helping kids move toward graduation and be on track to be able to go to a four-year college,” explained Roneeta Guha, lead author of the report and a senior researcher at SRI.

Generally thought of as a modern-day version of traditional career technical education, linked learning merges rigorous academics with real-world experiences to produce a much more robust educational experience.

The system is characterized by internships and job-shadowing to give students a vision of the professional world, as well as project-learning in the classroom where abstract ideas and concepts are often expressed using physical illustrations.

The Irvine Foundation has been a key supporter of the program since 2006 when it provided more than $100 million to establish linked learning pathways in nine school districts – including Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland and Sacramento.

Studies in the past have shown that when properly organized and carried out, linked learning or pathway curriculum has a very positive impact, especially on at-risk students.

The SRI analysis looked at four years of data, controlled for student background characteristics, demographics and prior achievement.

One of the key findings is that students enrolled in linked learning programs appear to have a much stronger connection to their school than those enrolled in traditional high schools.

Linked learning students are as much as seven percentage points more likely to remain in the same district through the 11th grade – an indication, researchers said, that the system is more engaging.

The report found that linked learners accumulated high school credits – those needed to graduate – faster than their counterparts outside the program:

• Ninth-grade pathway students earned significantly more credits than similar peers in all six districts with four-year pathways, ranging from 3.4 to 12.7 more credits.

• 10th-grade pathway students also do well on credit accumulation. In seven of eight districts, they earned more credits than similar peers, ranging from 2.2 to 11 more credits.

The researchers also found that 10th-grade pathway students in four of seven districts are six to 17 percentage points more likely than similar peers to be on track to complete the a-g courses required for admission to California’s public universities.

Somewhat surprisingly, the analysis did not find that pathway students consistently translated their success into high scores on standardized assessments.

Guha said the results surrounding test scores were mixed across districts – while the findings tied to credit accumulation and a-g course completion were consistent. “It takes time to move test scores,” she said. “It may just be too early to be having an effect on test scores – we don’t really know.”

There are, however, a number of lessons learned out of the first four years of the program. Perhaps the most important, Guha said, is the need for everyone in the district to pull together on the goals of the initiative from the beginning.

“What do you want your kids to know and be able to do? What should they look like when they graduate from high school?” she said, noting that it takes time for educators across the district to develop a common vision for linked learning as their key high school reform strategy as well as active commitment from district leaders to support the effort.

“They need to come together,” she explained. “Districts that have been successful brought together a coalition of stakeholders from the community – that includes parents, business and industry as well as educators within the district.”