Tell the truth about college readiness

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“Sam” earned mostly B’s at Average High. Is he/she/they prepared to pass college classes? Maybe, if the B’s were for achievement rather than effort and teachers’ standards were high enough. Maybe not.

U.S. schools don’t tell students the truth about college readiness, writes Chester E. Finn, Jr., former Fordham chief and assistant U.S. secretary of education, in National Affairs.

Then colleges admit unprepared students who require remedial classes. Most will “leave school with nothing but debt and disillusion,” writes Finn.

Ambition and optimism are laudable traits. So is this country’s long tradition as a place of second chances, a land where you can always start over, compensate for past mistakes, choose a new direction, and find the educational path that takes you there. But at a certain point, encouragement becomes damaging.

Nearly all high school students say they want to go to college. They know that college graduates do far better in the workforce than those with only a high school diploma. But don’t realize they’re not prepared to earn a degree.

. . . our K-12 education system has never gotten more than one-third of young Americans to the “college-ready” level by the end of the 12th grade. Twenty percent drop out before finishing high school, and of the rest only about two in five graduate with the reading and math skills that equip them to take credit-bearing college courses.

If colleges stopped admitting unprepared students — or the feds linked student aid to college readiness — people would be very, very angry, Finn writes. But what if it were possible?

We’d see greater seriousness about academic standards and achievement throughout the system and a lot more truth-telling. Fewer people would drop out of college, dejected and burdened by loans they cannot realistically pay back. More young Americans would truly be prepared for good jobs, economic success, upward mobility, and full participation in 21st-century life in a post-industrial economy. The country would be more competitive, too.

The money saved could go to high-quality technical education, he writes. Instead of  “college for all,” the mantra should be “honesty is the best policy.”

Remedial failure: Who’s to blame?

Eighty percent of students starting community college in California take at least one remedial course, according to a new Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) report.

Remediation “fails” students, according to the report. Only 16 percent will earn a two-year degree in six years; 24 percent transfer to a four-year college or university.

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Math is the greatest barrier: 65 percent of students are assigned to “developmental” math: Most start at least two levels below the college level. Only about 27 percent of remedial  math students go on to complete a college math course with a grade of C or better.

In addition, 54 percent enroll in “developmental” English. Less than half will pass a college-level English class.

Students earn no credit, since they’re not doing college-level work. For those who stick with it — about half do not — it takes a year or more.

Most of the state’s community colleges are trying alternatives, such as aligning remedial courses with students’ programs of study or compressing two-semester sequences into a single semester, reports the PPIC. (I think alignment means letting students with un-mathy majors take statistics instead of algebra.)

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Florida’s state colleges and universities let students skip remediation, even if their placement scores are low, if they think they can handle college-level courses. Colleges have added online labs and tutoring to help.

Perhaps all colleges should go “Full Florida,” writes Matt Reed, who blogged as “community college dean,” in Inside Higher Ed.

Remedial enrollments dropped by half, reports the Sun-Sentinel. Pass rates in entry-level college classes dropped slightly or held steady.

“Pass rates in developmental classes increased significantly,” Reed’s colleagues tell him. They think it’s because students are there by choice.

There’s something fundamentally broken about developmental education . . . Forcing students who have had bad experiences in a given subject to start by re-taking material they’ve had before, on their own dime, with no credit towards graduation, is a motivation-killer.

Most students who earned A’s and B’s in high school require remedial help in community college, according to a survey of 70,000 community-college students. Forty percent of A students and 60 percent of B students were unprepared for college work in math, English or both.

Less than a third of community college students earned a two-year degree after six years, reports the National Student Clearinghouse. One in 10 complete a four-year degree.

Poor achievers do little better than rich slackers

“Poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong,” writes Matt O’Brien in the Washington Post‘s Wonkblog.

The chart, based on research by Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill, shows that 14 percent of wealthy high school dropouts stay in the top income tier, while 16 percent of low-income college graduates stay in the lowest tier. “These low-income strivers are just as likely to end up in the bottom as these wealthy ne’er-do-wells,” writes O’Brien. “Some meritocracy.”

Rich kids who can go work for the family business — and, in Canada at least, 70 percent of the sons of the top 1 percent do just that — or inherit the family estate don’t need a high school diploma to get ahead. It’s an extreme example of what economists call “opportunity hoarding.” That includes everything from legacy college admissions to unpaid internships that let affluent parents rig the game a little more in their children’s favor.

By contrast, low-income graduates are more likely to earn a low-value degree from an unselective college or a “diploma mill.”  Blacks who earn a “good degree” are more likely to “live in impoverished neighborhoods that keep them disconnected from opportunities,” writes O’Brien.

Downtown College Prep, a San Jose charter that primarily educates low-income and working-class Mexican-Americans, offers career networking to help its graduates find professional jobs once they complete college. (Go ahead: Read the book.)

They all want to go to college, but . . . 


Students at Topeka High School. Photo: Christopher Smith/New York Times

In Senior Year at Topeka High in the New York Times, Anemona Hartocollis talks to 12th graders, their parents and their counselors at her old high school. Nearly all students want to go to college, but some never enroll and many who do never earn a degree, she writes. It’s called the “aspirations-attainment gap.”

“Applying to college requires a huge amount of social capital — the support of family, friends, mentors and teachers — as well as personal drive and initiative,” she writes.

Topeka High is in many ways an all-American school, the largest public high school in this sprawling low-rise city of about 127,000 people. The school has a strong racial, ethnic and economic mix among its 1,800 students.

. . . A handful of students, mainly affluent ones, will go to the Ivy League. But the graduation rate hovers in the low 70 percent range, the principal said; 45 percent of graduates go to a four-year college, and 17 percent go to a two-year college.

She talks to a boy who’s taking honors classes, but considering technical school as well as college. His farmer dad wants him to enlist in the military or work before starting college. His mother favors college, but doesn’t know how the application process works.

Another boy, a frequent truant from a “downwardly mobile” family, wants to be a musician. Can he do better than his dropout brother?

An ambitious black girl wants to be a doctor. She’s done everything right in high school, but can she get the counseling and financial aid she’ll need to make her dream a reality?

From ‘no excuses’ to college success

Chicago’s Noble Street College Prep, a no-excuses charter high school, raises the test scores of students who win its admissions lottery, conclude researchers Matthew Davis and Blake Heller in Education Next.

The benefits don’t end there: Noble Street College Prep students are more likely to enroll in college, stay in college and get into a competitive four-year school.

Nearly all students in the Noble network of schools are Hispanic or black and 89 percent are eligible for subsidized school meals.

Schools in the network feature “frequent teacher feedback, data-driven instruction, high-dosage tutoring, increased instructional time, and high expectations,” Davis and Heller write.

The school day and year are longer, giving Noble students 18 percent more learning time than students in district schools.

Students are taught at their level in smaller groups organized by performance.

During morning and afternoon meetings, teachers track individual academic progress, mark behavioral infractions, and hold students accountable as a group for maintaining academic and behavioral standards. Each afternoon, teachers maintain office hours for optional academic support, which becomes mandatory if a student’s performance falls below a certain threshold. Most campuses also feature some form of after-school tutoring provided by outside organizations.

Noble aggressively recruits teachers with a demonstrated track record of success and rewards teachers whose students demonstrate above-average academic growth with performance bonuses.

Ninth graders, who often come from low-performing schools, score below the average for Chicago Public School students, Davis and Heller write. In only a few years, these students “are prepared to enroll and succeed in college”

83% graduate — but are they educated?

The U.S. high school graduation rate has hit 83 percent, rising to a new high for the fifth year in a row. “We’ve made real progress,” said President Barack Obama at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in Washington, D.C.

President Obama greets students at Banneker High in Washington, D.C. The District has raised its high school graduation rate, but still ranks last in the nation. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

President Obama greets students at Banneker High in Washington, D.C. The District has raised its high school graduation rate, but still ranks last in the nation. Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

While 90.2 percent of Asian-American students and 87.6 percent of whites earn a diploma, that falls to 77.8 percent for Latinos and 74.6 percent for blacks.

Iowa has the highest graduation rate at 90.8 percent. Washington D.C., despite rapid improvement, is at the bottom with a 68.5 percent rate.

While graduation rates are rising steadily, there’s no evidence students are better prepared for college or careers, note Anya Kametez and Cory Turner on NPR.

. . . scores of high school students on the test known as the “Nation’s Report Card,” are essentially flat, and average scores on the ACT and SAT are down.

. . . “For many students, a high school diploma is not a passport to opportunity, it’s a ticket to nowhere,” says Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a national nonprofit that’s long advocated for higher standards and graduation requirements.

High school graduation exams often require only eighth- or ninth-grade skills. Some states have dropped the exams.

Just last month, in a major school funding ruling, Connecticut Superior Court Judge Thomas Moukawsher excoriated his state for watered down graduation standards that, he says, have already resulted “in unready children being sent to high school, handed degrees, and left, if they can scrape together the money, to buy basic skills at a community college.”

There are lots of ways to raise graduation rate, an excellent NPR series revealed. Monitoring students’ progress and closing “dropout factories” have helped in some places. In others, schools have fudged the numbers or used dubious “credit recovery” schemes.

College prep does little to boost outcomes

Taking advanced classes in high school does little to prepare students for college success, write Gregory Ferenstein and Brad Hershbein on Brookings’ Chalkboard blog.

In 2009, a federal review found “low evidence” that increasing the rigor of college-prep courses and adding Advanced Placement options produce better college outcomes, they write.

Relationship between college grades (first course) and high school course-taking

Relationship between college grades (first course) and high school course-taking

Their research looked at college grades for students who’d taken the same course in high school compared to those trying that subject for the first time. In physics, psychology, economics and sociology, the differences were “trivially small.” 

However, students who’d taken calculus in high school did modestly better in college calculus.

It’s likely high school students “often learn the wrong things, do not sufficiently focus on the critical thinking commonly needed in college, or simply forget much of what they learned,” they speculate.

They suggest schools “experiment with innovative and experimental courses” such as “non-cognitive skill development and technical education.”

Unready, but they don’t know it

Ninety percent of parents believe their children are performing at “grade level” or higher in their schoolwork, according to a Learning Heroes survey this spring. Yet only about a third of high school graduates are ready for college-level courses, writes Fordham’s Mike Petrilli in Education Next.

Ignorance isn’t bliss, he argues. If students and their parents knew they weren’t on track for success, maybe they’d do something about it.

There are efforts to help parents understand their children’s test scores, writes Petrilli. However, “they all have a tendency to soft-pedal the bad news.” Parents might learn their elementary and middle school aren’t ready for “further study” or “the next grade level,” but they won’t be told they’re not on track to succeed in college, which is nearly everyone’s goal.

“Predictive analytics” can estimate a sixth-grader’s future ACT scores, he writes. Why not tell parents if their child is on track for Flagship University, Directional State U or remedial classes at Local Community College?

If parents learn early enough that their child is on the remedial track, they can do something about it.

College Board has partnered with Khan Academy to provide free online tutoring linked to PSAT results, writes Petrilli.

When kids get their PSAT scores, they can instantaneously link to Khan Academy modules that target areas where they need additional help. More than one million teenagers have taken advantage of the offering so far. Why couldn’t states (or districts) do the same? Parents may be more likely to take bad news seriously if it accompanies resources to help their children improve.

Still, it may be that test-score results will never convince parents that their kids need to step it up, at least until schools stop handing out As and Bs to students who aren’t on track for success.

On Curmudgucation, Peter Greene doubts that test scores are more accurate than grades.

Does remediation help? It depends

College students who start in remedial classes usually fail to earn a degree. Is remediation a flop? Or are these students too far behind to catch up?

Remedial classes help poorly prepared students — if they complete the classes, concludes a new analysis of federal data. However, it’s a waste of time for moderately or well-prepared students (based on high school transcripts), who sometimes fail placement tests and end up in remediation.

Sixty-eight percent of community college students and 40 percent of state university students took at least one remedial class, according to a transcript analysis of people who started college in 2003-04. Nearly half of two-year students and one fifth of four-year students needed two remedial classes.

http://www.act.org/newsroom/data/2015/pdf/CCCR2015-InfoGraphic.pdf

At community colleges, only half of remedial students completed required courses. Those who did complete were as likely as non-remedial students to earn an associate or bachelor’s degree within six years, and far more likely to succeed than remedial dropouts.

At state universities, the 59 percent of underprepared students who completed remediation were less likely to complete a bachelor’s degree than non-remedial classmates, but nearly twice as likely to succeed as remedial dropouts.

Some colleges have found success with “co-requisite” remediation: Underprepared students start in  college-level classes, with access to support classes and labs.

Skipping remediation seems to work for students who are close to the college level, but not for the weakest students. That suggests colleges should rethink placement tests so remediation is reserved for those who really need it.

Emily Hanford makes the case against the “college remediation trap.”

College hopes for all, but . . .

“As colleges push students to consider their options for higher education, more high-school students are taking the ACT exam,” reports the Wall Street Journal. But most aren’t ready to succeed in college courses.