First to college — but not to a degree

More low-income students are enrolling in college, but few go on to earn a degree, reports Liz Riggs in The Atlantic. Just 11 percent of low-income students who are the first in their family to attend college will earn a bachelor’s degree in six years.

Many are poorly prepared for college work, struggling with financial burdens and working long hours, writes Riggs.

When Nijay Williams entered college last fall as a first-generation student and Jamaican immigrant, he was—despite being admitted to the school—academically unprepared for the rigors of higher education. Like many first-generation students, he enrolled in a medium-sized state university many of his high school peers were also attending, received a Pell grant, and took out some small federal loans to cover other costs. Given the high price of room and board and the proximity of the school to his family, he opted to live at home and worked between 30 and 40 hours a week while taking a full class schedule.

What Williams didn’t realize about his school—Tennessee State University—was its frighteningly low graduation rate: a mere 29 percent for its first-generation students. At the end of his first year, Williams lost his Pell Grant of over $5,000 after narrowly missing the 2.0 GPA cut-off, making it impossible for him to continue paying for school.

Tennessee State’s overall graduation rate is only 39 percent. By comparison, the state’s flagship university, the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, graduates 71 percent of students and 54 percent of its first-generation students.

A minority of four-year schools provide adequate support to first-generation students, says Matt Rubinoff, who directs a new nonprofit called I’m First.

Most disadvantaged students choose unselective state universities, community colleges or online programs with low graduation rates and little funding for support services.

If President Obama’s proposal for “free” community college tuition passes — which it won’t — then first-generation, low-income students who could get into a selective university may decide to start at community college instead. (Actually, few low-income students pay any community college tuition, but they might get more Pell dollars to cover their living expenses.) That would be a high-risk decision.

Homeschooling faces less regulation

As homeschooling grows, some states are regulating less, reports Motoko Rich for the New York Times. Some 1.8 million children were homeschooled in 2011-12, according to federal estimates. That may increase even more as parents seek to “escape the testing and curriculums that have come along with the Common Core,” predicts the Times.

Fara Williams teaches son Elijah at home (Photo: Michael F. McElroy, New York Times)

Fara Wiles, who was homeschooled as a child, teaches son Elijah at home in Pennyslvania. (Photo: Michael F. McElroy, New York Times)

Eleven states do not require families to report school-age children being taught at home, according to the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. Fourteen don’t specify which subjects should be taught. “Only nine states require that parents have at least a high school diploma or equivalent in order to teach their children.” Half the states do not require homeschooled children to take an outside test.

For example, Pennsylvania no longer requires families to submit their children’s portfolios, as well as the results of standardized testing in third, fifth and eighth grade, to district superintendents.

Regulation can protect children from inadequate home teaching or abusive parents, argues the Coalition for Responsible Home Education. Its executive director, Rachel Coleman was homeschooled — successfully — from kindergarten through high school. She collects stories of homeschoolers who say oversight would have helped.

Caitlin Townsend, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Michigan, was home-schooled in Pennsylvania until she was 13, when her parents split up and she moved with her mother to New Jersey, which has virtually no regulations for home-schooling families.

. . .  her mother had used science textbooks that taught the theory of intelligent design and shied away from rigorous math during her high school years.

“When I was growing up we always talked about the school officials as the Big Bad Wolf,” said Ms. Townsend, who had to enroll in remedial math classes in college. “What I could have benefited from was a system of evaluation that would have given my mother some red flags that I needed some tutoring in science and math.”

Of course, it’s very common for high school graduates to need remedial math in college.

Homeschooled students use the SAT or ACT — or a community college transcript — to show they’re prepared for college. The expansion of virtual education is making it easier for motivated students to learn at home, even if the parents aren’t masters of math or science.

Pass rates plummet on Core-aligned GED

The new Common Core-aligned GED (General Education Diploma) test is much harder — and more expensive, reports Daniel McGraw on Cleveland Scene. Far fewer high school dropouts have taken the test this year and nearly 500,000 fewer have passed the GED.

In 2012, 401,388 people earned a GED. That went up to 540,000 people in 2013, with many rushing to take the test before it changed. This year, only 55,000 have passed.

Tutor works with GED student at Seeds of Literacy

Tutor works with GED student at Seeds of Literacy

The Seeds of Literacy, a Cleveland nonprofit, helped 131 students pass in the past two years. This year, only two have earned a GED.

At Cleveland’s Project Learn, 29-year-old Derwin Williams has studied all year for the GED, but isn’t ready to take it, reports McGraw. Williams wants to train as a roofer or drywall hanger.

“We are freezing out a large portion of those who would have had a good chance of passing before,” said Robert Bivins, program director of Education at Work at Project Learn.

Like Williams, most GED students want to impress employers or qualify for job training. They’re not aiming at a bachelor’s degree. Yet the Core-aligned exam measures college readiness.

A question from a sample test asks:

Cilia are very thin, hair-like projections from cells. They are 2.0 x 10-4. What is the maximum number of cilia that would fit side by side — without overlapping — across a microscope slide that is 25 millimeters wide?

a. 8.0 x 10-6

b. 1.25 x 10-3

c. 8.0 x 102

d. 1.25 x 105

Is that answerable as written? (Not by me.)

The old GED exam required one personal essay with a question such as: “Who is someone you think is successful and why?” It was graded on sentence structure and grammar.

Now there are two essays evaluated on reasoning.

(A question) asks the tester to read two essays on daylight saving time — one in favor, one against — and then write an essay about which one is better and why.

. . . Another asks a test taker whether a school’s decision to expel a student refusing to salute the flag or saying the Pledge of Allegiance is covered by the freedom of religion or freedom of speech, and how Thomas Jefferson’s writing fits into the question at hand. The essay will be judged, in part, on “your own knowledge of the enduring issue and the circumstances surrounding the case to support your analysis.”

Few are even trying to pass the new GED, says John Eric Humphries, co-author of The Myth of Achievement Tests. “We use the same test” for “a job parking cars as we do for getting into college,” he says.

Some states offer an alternative exam, reports McGraw. Ohio is considering alternatives.

Voc ed can be a path to college


Minuteman’s biotechnology students, here seen dissecting dogfish, aspire to careers in biomedical engineering and forensic science. Most go to college. Photo: Emily Hanford

Massachusetts’ vocational high schools are preparing students for college, not just for the workforce, writes Emily Hanford on Marketplace.

At Minuteman Regional High School in Lexington, students can learn carpentry, plumbing and welding — and “high tech fields such as video game design, engineering, and biotechnology.”

Minuteman students spend half their time in vocational classes – often referred to as “career and technical classes – and half their time in academic courses. About 60 percent of the school’s graduates go on to college. That’s not the way things were when principal Ernest Houle learned welding at a vocational high school back in the 1980s.

“The highest-level math I ever had in high school was an Algebra 1,” says Houle. “And that only happened my sophomore year because it fit in the schedule.”

These days, “career tech” students can take a full range of college-prep courses.

In 2013, students at regional vocational high schools in Massachusetts did as well on the state English tests (92 percent proficient) as students at traditional high schools (93 percent proficient), notes Hanford. In math, 78 percent of vocational students were proficient compared to 82 percent at traditional high schools.

After years in private school, Sean and Brandon Datar chose Minuteman.

“Being an engineer myself, I like the fact that schools like this cater to making an actual living,” says their father, Nijan Datar. He wasn’t impressed by the top-rated public and private high schools in the Boston suburbs.

. . .  the main goal seemed to be getting students into the best, and most expensive, colleges. But no one seemed to be talking about what kids were going to do with their college degrees once they got them.

His wife, Teresa Datar, says high school students need more direction.

“My feeling is that in many high schools, students don’t know why they’re in the classes that they’re in. They’re just kind of biding time,” she says. “And then they go off to college and they flounder.”

Brandon is now a freshman at the Colorado School of Mines, working on a bachelor’s degree in geological engineering. Sean is a sophomore at Minuteman, majoring in robotics.

Who graduates from college?

Of 100 students from four different income groups who began a two-year or four-year college in 2002, who earned a degree by 2008? asks the Washington Post. (Click the link to check out the nice graphics.) Surprisingly few.

In six years, only 30 students completed a bachelor’s degree. That includes 12 students of 25 from the top quartile in family income ($92,000+) and four of 25 from the bottom quartile (less than $32,000). Another 14 students — two from the top quartile and five from the bottom quartile — earned an associate degree or certificate.

Three high-income students and seven low-income students are among the 21 dropouts. Thirty-five students from all income groups were still trying to complete a degree.

Only 56 percent of the highest-income students, 44 percent of the upper-middle group, 40 percent of lower-middle incomes and 36 percent of the lowest-income students had earned a credential of any kind in six years.

I’m not surprised that students from low-income (and usually poorly educated families) have trouble earning a degree. I’m shocked that middle- and upper-middle-class families get only half their kids through college in six years. Giving full-time students an extra two years to complete a bachelor’s degree raises completion rates by less than 5 percent, according to Complete College America’s Time is the Enemy.

How to prevent college dropouts

The best way to prevent college dropouts is to stop admitting unprepared students to four-year colleges and universities, argues Richard Vedder. People with “some college, no degree” earn little more than high school-only workers, but most have student loans to repay. If they’d started at community college, they might have job skills without the debt.

Different diplomas for different kids

What does a high school diploma mean? Common Core standards are supposed to guarantee that all graduates are ready for “college and career.” (Which college? Which career?)

Absent a miracle, that would man denying most 12th graders a diploma, writes Checker Finn in Education Next. Today, somewhere between 26 percent (ACT) and 40 percent (NAEP) are prepared for college.

Different Kids Need Different Credentials, Finn argues. States should issue a gold-star diploma that signifies college readiness and a conventional diploma that shows the student has passed mandatory courses “to the satisfaction of those teaching them.”

This is akin to the practice for many decades (until 2012) in New York State, where a Regents Diploma denoted a markedly higher level of academic attainment than a local diploma, and it’s somewhat similar to the practice in today’s England, where you can complete your schooling with a General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE), but if you’re bent on university, you stick around to earn a more-demanding A-level certificate.

Finn is “unpersuaded that college readiness is the proper goal of everybody’s high-school education” or that the new academic standards “are truly needed for success in myriad careers.”

. . . much as I admire the Common Core standards and hope that they gain enormous traction across the land, I have never seen, in any line of endeavor, a standard that was both truly high and universally attained.

About half the states have graduation exams, but they’re typically set at 8th, 9th or — at most — 10th-grade levels, writes Finn. Even then, some 12th graders — disproportionately disadvantaged students  — have trouble passing after multiple tries.

Ed Next has set up a discussion, but everyone agrees that differential diplomas make sense.

Support low-income and minority students to earn stronger diplomas,” writes Richard D. Kahlenberg.

States should award a “diploma plus” to students who’ve achieved career or college readiness, writes Sandy Kress.

SAT: 43% are ready for college

Forty-three percent of SAT takers in the class of 2014 are prepared for college, reports College Board. The average SAT score was 1497 out of 2400, down a point from the year before. A combined score of 1550 predicts success in college classes.

Only students aspiring to selective colleges take the SAT.  College readiness rates are even lower — 26 percent — on the ACT, which includes some students required by their states to take the exam.

Family income correlates with SAT scores, notes the Wall Street Journal.

Carnival of Homeschooling

Ozymandias is the theme of this week’s Carnival of Homeschooling, hosted by Petticoat Government. CT has been teaching about Ancient Egypt and contemplating the decline of once-powerful institutions, such as the public school system.

“Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Now in college, the Cates’ daughter wrote an essay on how homeschooling prepared her for college.

For the Core — with doubts

“I think the Common Core State Standards are our best shot at creating an education system that meets the challenges of the 21st century,” writes Dylan Wiliam, an emeritus professor of educational assessment, who served on the Validation Committee. But he refused to “validate” the standards.

On Rick Hess’ blog, Wiliam explains why.

Committee members were asked to agree that the standards are:

1) Reflective of the core knowledge and skills in ELA and mathematics that students need to be college- and career-ready
2) Appropriate in terms of their level of clarity and specificity
3) Comparable to the expectations of other leading nations
4) Informed by available research or evidence
5) The result of processes that reflect best practices for standards development
6) A solid starting point for adoption of cross state common core standards
7) A sound basis for eventual development of standards-based assessments

In a letter to the CCSSO, Wiliam said he agreed with statements 1, 6 and 7 and “can persuade myself that statements 4 and 5 are just about OK (although it’s a stretch).”

However, I cannot in all conscience, endorse statements 2 and 3. The standards are, in my view, much more detailed, and, as Jim Milgram has pointed out, are in important respects less demanding, than the standards of the leading nations.

. . . I think there is also a real tension between pitching the standards at college-readiness (which is fine) and saying that they are comparable to the world’s leading nations in mathematics when many countries are much more demanding at college entry, because they recruit a smaller proportion of the population.

It’s “silly to claim the standards are evidence-based,” adds Wiliam. “They are choices about curriculum, and no amount of evidence can shed any light on whether we should study Shakespeare or Dickens.”