Montgomery County’s ‘Seven Keys to College Readiness’ will get a makeover


Montgomery County Superintendent Joshua Starr strives to make the system’s definition of student success to include skills not measured in standardized tests — such as persistence, motivation and grit. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)
January 21, 2013

The Montgomery County Public Schools system is revamping its signature Seven Keys to College Readiness as the district and American educators rethink what students should know and be able to do upon high school graduation.

The county’s “keys” set benchmarks that students from elementary to high school should aim for in reading, math and exams such as the SAT to prepare themselves for college. But many aspects of the academic pathway need to be redefined as the county implements curriculum to meet new national and state education reforms designed with more challenging course work.

While it is unclear what the new benchmarks will be, the facelift of the Seven Keys comes as Montgomery Superintendent Joshua P. Starr seeks to broaden the system’s definition of student success to include skills not measured in standardized tests — such as persistence, motivation and grit — in addition to traditional academic knowledge focused on reading and math.

Susan F. Marks, Montgomery’s acting associate superintendent for shared accountability, said the keys will change as state standardized tests used to determine what is “advanced” in reading changes and the county adopts a tougher math curriculum.

But, Marks said, the county also will work to update the keys and the school system’s strategic goals to address wider skills, such as communication, problem solving and drive. “The struggle is there is not a test for some of these things,” Marks said.

In one of the best-performing and competitive school districts in the country, the aim of the Seven Keys has been clear: Students should graduate ready for college, regardless of where they come from and whether they plan to get a degree. The keys have met with some resistance. Some in the community believe they have led the school system to push students too far, too fast, becoming a driving force behind decisions about a student’s academic trajectory.

Board of Education member Michael E. Durso (5th District) said the keys can end up putting pressure on students and educators. “I know schools [were] putting students in eighth-grade algebra almost midyear because of the numbers we were looking for,” Durso said.

Montgomery parent Michelle Gluck said the Seven Keys have made a lasting mark in a county full of parents with high expectations.

“The Seven Keys have contributed to the mind-set in parents that the on-grade-level curriculum was remedial, and to be on a college-prep track a student had to be advanced,” Gluck said. “Now they are re-norming the on-grade-level curriculum to what it should be, which is college prep.”

Since the Seven Keys launched in 2009, the county goals have been plastered on school walls and distributed in e-mails and pamphlets, with a focus on reaching families for which college hasn’t been a tradition. Despite gains in academic performance, Montgomery continues to grapple with how to best change and use the Seven Keys to close its achievement gap and prepare students for life after high school.

“How do we continue to use things like the Seven Keys to hold ourselves accountable for great academic achievement while also developing very focused frameworks around social [and] emotional skills and 21st-century skills,” Starr said at a board meeting in December. “It will be a great struggle and a great opportunity.”

Montgomery developed the keys by examining profiles of students who typically get into college and earn a degree. The Seven Keys suggest students who aim for these benchmarks have a better chance of getting into college. They focus on:

●Literacy: Read at advanced levels between kindergarten and second grades and score “advanced” in reading on the Maryland Schools Assessment, the state’s standardized test, in grades three through eight.

●Math: Complete advanced math in fifth grade, complete Algebra I by eighth grade with a C or higher and complete Algebra II by 11th grade with a C or higher.

●High school exams: Score at least a 3 on an Advanced Placement exam or a 4 on an International Baccalaureate exam; score at least 1650 on the SAT or 24 on the ACT.

The number of students who have reached these benchmarks has improved for at least five of the seven keys during the past five years, specifically in the areas of high school math and high school exams. Montgomery graduates earning a score of at least 1650 on the SAT or a 24 on the ACT went from 37.6 percent in 2008 to 51.9 percent in 2012, a 14.3 percentage point increase.

The number of students taking advanced math in fifth grade has remained stable from 2008 to 2012. There was a slight decrease in the number of second-grade students who met reading benchmarks, going from 44.9 percent in 2008 to 43.2 percent in 2012.

Montgomery officials said they do not track how many of the county’s graduates who went to college met all of the keys, nor does the county track data about the keys related to graduation rates.

David Conley, a University of Oregon professor and chief executive of the nonprofit Educational Policy Improvement Center, has been studying what students need to know and be able to do to be ready for college and careers for more than two decades. In the early 2000s, Conley created the Four Keys to College and Career Readiness, which focus not only on academics, but also ideas about how students should act, think and set goals for themselves.

“I really worry about kids struggling with literacy, and we’re telling them until they overcome that, they can’t go to college,” Conley said. “If you have a motivated person who needs help, and seeks help when they need it, if they work hard and persist when confronted with a challenge, we’d like to send a message to that person that even if your literacy skills are developing, you shouldn’t think of college as beyond your ambitions.”●

Regardless of whether Montgomery develops seven, 17 or 70 keys in the future, there are some unteachable factors that go into college success, parent Mayra Moran says. She has a daughter who recently graduated from Watkins Mill High School. Her daughter didn’t rely on the Seven Keys alone, Moran said.

“The school system does a good job of getting information out, but whether a student doesn’t go to college is more family rooted than not having those keys up on a wall,” Moran said.

Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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