Does grade level mean college ready?

If your child passes state tests, is he doing OK? If she’s at grade level, does that mean she’s on the college track? Not necessarily, writes Sarah Carr in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Louisiana students take the LEAP or iLEAP in grades three through eight, and the GEE, or Graduate Exit Exam, starting in the 10th grade. They must hit “basic” to advance out of the fourth or eighth grades and to graduate.

A basic score means the student is working at grade level, parents are told. But basic on the GEE correlates to a 19 on the ACT, while a state-funded college scholarship requires a minimum ACT score of 20.

Many public schools focus intensely on increasing the number of students scoring at basic since at least one basic score is required to advance at the high-stakes grades. But if they want to prepare their students for college, and help them afford the tuition, schools need to increase the number of students scoring at the “mastery” and “advanced” levels.

The advantage of the ACT comparison is that it has real-world consequences in terms of college acceptance and financial aid that parents are more likely to understand than more abstract references to “grade-level” work.

“Here is where the race to lower cut scores, dumb-down tests and otherwise create an illusion of proficiency where none exists exacts a terrible toll,” writes Robert Pondiscio on Core Knowledge Blog. “For low-SES children in particular it is entirely possible–even likely–for a child to attend school faithfully, do everything that is asked, earn decent grades and pass all standardized tests put before them, yet still graduate years behind their peers who had the good fortune to attend better schools and get a more rigorous education.”

He suggests linking report cards to admission to a state university: Tell parents if the student is on track for guaranteed university admission.

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  1. Why should “grade level” mean “college ready”? A high school diploma doesn’t mean one is eligible for college.

    An ACT score of 19 is a bit low for “basic”, but only by a point or so–a couple more correct questions.

  2. I agree with Cal.

    You say: “A basic score means the student is working at grade level, parents are told. But basic on the GEE correlates to a 19 on the ACT, while a state-funded college scholarship requires a minimum ACT score of 20.”

    And that makes sense to me. Kids who are scoring at the basic level should not be getting state-funded scholarships for college. Kids scoring at advanced levels should be the ones attending college and getting scholarships to do so.

    I think there’s way too much pressure for all kids to attend college. Wasn’t there an article here just a bit ago about how college students study less and college professors expect less of them than they did a few decades ago, or was that another blog? I hate to sound like an elitist, but college (and college scholarships) should be for the best students, not just those who meet “basic” or “proficient” levels of achievement.

  3. Cal and Greg might very well be right, but I’d guess that for their children (if they have children) it wouldn’t occur to them to conflate state tests scores and college readiness in the first place. Their own experience, their clear expectations and sense of what college readiness “looks like” would give them a clear idea on their kids level of preparedness.

    That’s simply not the case for low-SES kids, especially where parents are themselves poorly educated. If the school tells you your kids are performing satisfactorily every year you have every reason to believe they’re college material. To find out that they’re not is cruelest possible bait and switch.

  4. Robert, what you just wrote shows that we have quickly changing expectations as to what “on grade level” means. To me, it means that you’re proceeding towards high school graduation, and you MAY be college-ready, but not neccessarily. If “on grade level” is supposed to mean college ready, who decided that, and when?

  5. Cardinal Fang says:

    In theory, Cal and Greg are right. In practice, Robert is right. We need to do a better job communicating to students and their parents about how the student’ level of achievement compares to the level required by colleges, because in reality tens of thousands of students are arriving at college every year and discovering to their dismay that they are not prepared to take college level classes.

  6. Robert Pondiscio’s “illusion of proficiency” comment reminded me of test reporting publications that define proficient as “adequate” or “satisfactory”—a far cry from the dictionary definition, which includes “advanced” or “competent” or “skilled.” It’s no wonder schools would lower their standards accordingly. Yet it’s also unfortunate, since I’ve worked with many school leaders and teachers who’ve withstood pressure to lower their standards, and have not only raised the bar, but helped students reach it.

  7. SuperSub says:

    JB –
    Not sure if they originally decided it, but just about every guidance counselor I know equates a high school diploma with being college ready. They’re practically a bunch of cheerleaders…telling students that they only need to graduate to experience the hedonistic experience that college is. Even better, they promote the belief that they can attend just about any school because of public-backed student loan programs…without even mentioning the financial liability that comes with them.
    Many I’ve known view military service and other non-college futures as substandard.
    I’d say that a lot of this came out of the cultural and economic change of the 80’s, where Wall-street investors, entrepreneurs, and white-collar workers became the heroes of society rather than the self-sufficient, hard-working skilled laborers and factory workers that had served in WW2. For the first time in our nation’s short history teenage males were not required to serve in the military. This allowed the creation of a large college-educated class that became the foundation of today’s upper-middle class.

  8. a high school diploma should mean college ready. A college diploma doesn’t mean that the student must go to college: but they have the skills choice and insight to make and carryout a decision.

    It’s ok to have literate tradesmen and soldiers – it’s arguably in everyone’s interest to have that. They may even decide in the future to go to college.

    Having a diploma shouldn’t mean that the student is ready to be saddled with high school debt as they take high school courses in college.

  9. tim-10-ber says:

    A few things — the ACT says you need a 24 in each category to be considered college ready. In TN if you have scores of less than 22 in math and/or english you take remedial classes. The minimum for the Hope scholarship is a 21 or a B average.

    On public school (and maybe some private school) college counselors they do not do their job well. I cannot tell you how many students and their families are shocked that their students have to take remedial classes, did not understand the value of either AP or the appropriate scores on the ACT…these people are not doing their job.

    We need either better high school college/guidance counselors or more of them or they need to be less social worker/counselor so they can be more focused on what kids are taking, what they should take, how they are doing and what post secondary opportunities they are truly prepared for…

    Just a parent point of view who is very glad we escaped the poor quality public school guidance counselor for a private school where teacher’s recommended the next year’s classes for the student based on how the student did in their classes…hmmm what a novel idea…

  10. Robert is right. In qualifying one of my students for special ed services, we had to explain to the parent why their child was not performing at grade level, despite test scores from two other states that claimed the student was proficient. All it took was a look at the ratio of correct answers to number of questions to see that the bar had been set pretty low in both cases (and both states are notorious for low statewide standards). And yes, the parent was low SES.

    I also agree with those who say that we’re pushing too many kids toward college. College is not the goal for all students and it shouldn’t be.

  11. A diploma should not mean college ready; it’s impossible and unattainable. Some kids should not be in any kind of academic setting, some should be in special programs/schools, some will max out at real 8th-grade skill level, some should have the option of solid vocational programs (hopefully we’lll get back to doing that in HS), some will be ready for college-level work and some should be accelerated and given more material at more depth. Not everyone is capable of college work and not everyone is motivated enough to do the work that REAL college requires. Too many are in college.

    I agree with the comments about guidance counselors. I’ve never met one with much interest in or knowledge of academics. They are much more interested in the social and psych stuff. They also disdain the military and vocational options, both of which provide solid opportunities.

  12. I should have added that better curriculum, such as real phonics, grammar, composition, math (Singapore)and lots of content across the disciplines and explicit, teacher-centered instruction starting in kindergarten should mean that many more kids will be ready for real HS and real college work.

  13. Whether or not all kids can or should go to college is an debatable question but as a practical matter, that seems to be the goal — explicitly stated or strongly implied — of nearly every state and local school system. Likewise, we can debate the desirability of letting standardized tests drive decision-making in education. My point is not to debate either. But IF we are to make “college and career” readiness the coin of the realm, and IF we are to make standardized tests our primary means of evaluation, then they have to be aligned. Anything else is unfair.

  14. > A diploma should not mean college ready; it’s impossible and unattainable.
    It’s possible and attainable to have a meaningful diploma
    – it gives meaning to the diploma … otherwise the diploma is just a certificate of attendance
    – it does set a high bar for teachers, administrators and counselors to reach … but in many (most) cases it is reachable. Perhaps not all
    – it does require work from students and families … part of the school mission should be to engage students and families. Some students and families may still choose not to engage or be able to engage, but I suspect fewer than you think.
    – it doesn’t mean that every student must go to college … but it means not dumbing down the curriculum so that they can’t go to college, even after fulfilling the graduation goals.

    To use the overly-abused factory analogy, you don’t measure success by the number of resources flowing into the factor nor by the number of non-working end products, you measure the actual output. (when you get to efficiency and effectiveness, then you might compare inputs, outputs and quality of each)

    As Robert P. points out, the goal of educated citizens does require alignment of goals and metrics.

  15. “Momof4” is exactly right. She broke up the human population exactly the way I would have. And trying to force those that can’t – and will never – handle college level material proper, isn’t fair to them, or to the colleges.

    Our culture needs to change in this country. On one hand, it’s “uncool” to “know things” (anti-intellectualism), and on the other hand, everyone’s supposed to go to college – when there are many non-college careers that are just as rewarding, just as essential to our society, and just as well-paying as most college grad jobs (think everything from police officers and firefighters to the Armed Forces, forest service, electricians, plumbers, etc.)

    It’s like our whole culture is schitzophrenic… It should be cool to know things, and there are many ways to learn many things.

  16. MLA,
    the problem is that it is too simple to consign people into the “can’t/won’t” learn categories for the ease of the organizations paid to educate them.

    you also conflate “college ready” and “college going”. Think about each of the non-career positions you list and how stats or history or language make them more effective in their career (not to mention outside of their career)

  17. Yes, and basic Statistics, basic U.S. / World History, and basic English Language Arts are all something they’re *supposed* to be learning in High School…

  18. I agree with Robert about the need to communicate achievement levels and their future/college implications to students and parents more clearly than is presently being done. That should be clearly stated on an annual basis, starting in kindergarten, because high school is too late to remediate years of weak performance.

    That being said, I do agree with the post that said an ACT of 20 (unattainable for many/most scoring at basic level on state tests) should be insuffient for any kind of publicly funded scholarships. If an ACT score of 24, indicating real college readiness, correlates with the mastery level (which seems desirable), that should be the standard for public scholarships.

    There used to be different diplomas; honors, college prep, vocational and basic/general, with the latter aligning with (real) 8th-grade competency or better. I see no good reason why kids should have to pay for post-HS vocational programs that were available to their grandparents while in high school. A relative was the principal of a tech high school that offered auto mechanics, tool and die, sheet metal, various office/business, cosmetology and Licensed Practical Nurse programs, among others. There are many others that could be offerred.

    Unfortunately, such a format is politically unacceptable, which is probably why it was dropped; college prep was disproportionately white/Jewish (and Asian in some areas). Somehow, we need to get more kids ready, but it’s not easy. An AP English teacher posted that all seniors in Prince George’s County, MD (suburban DC) are required to take an AP class, with the result that his class has few kids capable of doing the work and many reading at a 5th-grade level.

  19. Cranberry says:

    Grade level work does not mean a child is college ready. If I recall correctly, Charles Murray stated at one point that an IQ of at least 115 is needed to successfully complete meaningful college work. While one may quibble about the accuracy of IQ tests, the percentages of students who successfully complete college work do demonstrate that many students who begin college do not succeed at it. No curriculum on this earth can render every student above-average in intelligence, knowledge, and work habits.

  20. Cranberry’s comments explain the proliferation of majors that require little, if any, real academic work. Most of the various “studies” seem to fall into this category; they are more likely to be exercises in group-think and/or political activism than academic inquiry. Colleges have to do something with below-average students, since it’s unacceptable to flunk them out in significant numbers.

  21. Cranberry’s comments explain the proliferation of majors that require little, if any, real academic work.

    You don’t have to even take a math course to get a Liberal Arts degree at UC Berkeley if your Math SAT score is over 600–which means everyone but their ELP students (read black and Hispanic students). They have to take one pre-calc math course.


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