ACT: College hopes rise, scores fall

Most students aren’t ready for college, according to the latest ACT college readiness report. The composite score dropped to 20.9 in 2013, the lowest in eight years. That’s probably because more students — including less-capable students — are taking the exam.

Only 26 percent of test-takers in the class of 13 met all four readiness benchmarks in English (grammar, sentence structure, organization, rhetorical skills), reading, science and math; 39 percent met three of the four and nearly one-third did not meet any.

Twelve states are testing more than 90 percent of seniors, including students who don’t plan to go to college. Also, for the first time, disabled students with testing accommodations, such as extended time, were included in the overall reporting numbers.

College-readiness benchmarks were developed by ACT to predict whether a student has a 75 percent chance of earning a C or higher or a 50 percent chance of earning a B or higher in a typical first-year college course. Students this year did best in English, with 64 percent achieving the standard. Forty-four percent met it in both reading and math, and 36 percent hit the benchmark in science.

This year, ACT moved the reading benchmark up 1 point to 22 and science down 1 point to 23 to match expectations for performance at a national sample of colleges.

How to ‘shake up’ higher ed

If President Obama really wants to “shake up” higher education, he should start by scaling back student loans, writes economist Richard Vedder. In addition, colleges should share the costs of high default rates, discouraging them from enrolling students with little chance of success, argues Vedder.

Critics hit remedial ed reforms

States are trying to prevent, accelerate or limit remedial education to boost graduation rates. But some say remedial reforms will doom many college students to failure.

Instructors are trying to increase the rigor of developmental classes so students will be prepared to succeed in credit-bearing classes.

Obama (re)proposes job training fund

Funding community college job training and expanding college-industry manufacturing institutes will create “middle-class jobs,” President Obama said in a speech at an Amazon warehouse in Chattanooga.

While 55 percent of low-income students start college, only 10 percent earn a degree. For disadvantaged students, college readiness must include self advocacy, money management and networking.

After 12th grade, it’s back to middle school

“A large fraction of students are leaving the 12th grade with a high-school diploma, and they’re about to begin a course of studies at the 8th grade level,” says Marc Tucker, president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, of community college students.

Is the new GED too hard?

The GED exam will be harder in 2014, reports the Bay Area News Group. Maybe too hard. The new four-part test, which will be taken on computers, is aligned with Common Core’s college and career readiness expectations.

The new exams are designed to better prepare students for vocational training, college or careers by testing the skills employers are looking for now, said Armando Diaz, spokesman for the GED Testing Service.

There will be fewer multiple choice questions and more questions that “require test-takers to read longer passages and show understanding by defending opinions in short answers or essays.”

I wonder if the new test is too difficult. Here’s a sample social studies question for the 2014 exam:

Excerpt: “There would be an end to everything, were the same man, or the same body, whether of the nobles or of the people, to exercise those three powers, that of enacting laws, that of executing the public resolutions, and of trying the causes of individuals.”

Based on the excerpt, which important principle held by America’s founders did Montesquieu help shape?

A. Wider participation in government is essential to democracy.
B. Government will fail unless it performs a variety of functions.
C. Divisions of powers within government are necessary to prevent abuses.
D. Government power should be shared among the different classes of society.

(Option C is correct. The excerpt states the belief that concentrating all governmental power in one person or group would be very detrimental to a society.)

Go here for more on the new exam.

Only 12 percent of GED recipients go on to earn any other credential, GED officials say. They want the GED to be rigorous enough to be the first step to a vocational credential and a decent job. But it’s going to be a high step.

It’s possible to be stumped by Montesquieu but capable of  learning how to weld, cut hair or drive a truck. The GED is most useful as a minimum qualifications, not as an indicator of college readiness. If it’s too hard, a lot of people will give up.

Low pass rate puts MOOC pilot on hold

San Jose State and Udacity have put their low-cost, for-credit MOOC experiment on hold for a semester because of high failure rates. After a semester off to rethink the design, online courses will resume.

Community colleges are creating free online courses and study guides to help students learn basic skills and avoid remedial courses.  A Cleveland community college is using game-based learning to help high school students prepare for college-level courses.

French rethink ‘le bac’

French students spend weeks cramming for the baccalauréat, better known as “le bac,” the weeklong national test that decides who earns a high school diploma, reports the New York Times. “Without a passing score, university doors are closed and job prospects are generally grim.” Now “most everyone” is questioning the utility of le bac, according to the Times.

France once liked to think of its educational system as a model for the world, but studies show academic performance here to be unexceptional and on the decline, and officials have in recent years begun to fret. Increasingly, the bac is viewed as the flagship of a flawed system, a symbol not so much of French excellence but of what is wrong with education here.

It focuses too little on logic or creativity, many complain, and too much on rote knowledge and the esoterica that thrill the Parisian cultural aristocracy. Some critics say it has grown too easy, with a pass rate of about 90 percent last year; others contend that it now serves as little more than an exceptionally inefficient way to weed out the least-proficient students.

There are 91 versions of the exam, including three “general” options (focused on the sciences, economics or literature), eight for technical students and 80 vocational bacs.

More than 70 percent of young people earn bacs today. Some argue the test has been dumbed down to allow all but the weakest students to pass. Certainly passing the bac doesn’t guarantee university success: More than half of university students don’t make it to their second year.

Proposals to count classroom grades have been rejected “because grading standards vary between schools and instructors,” reports the Times. “Everyone is sort of equal in front of the bac,” said Corentin Durand, a 17-year-old official in the Union Nationale Lycéenne, the country’s largest high school union.

Uncommon Schools wins Broad Prize

Uncommon Schools has won the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools. A 32-school charter network in Massachusetts, New Jersey, and New York, Uncommon Schools educates primarily low-income black students. The schools have narrowed achievement gaps, the review board found.

All Uncommon seniors took the SAT in 2012. They averaged a score of 1570, higher than College Board’s readiness mark and higher than the average for white students nationwide.

No compromise on student loans

Interest rates on federally subsidized student loans double today from 3.4 percent to 6.8 percent. The Democratic Senate leadership blew it by rejecting a sensible bipartisan compromise, writes Matthew Chingos of the Brookings Institution.

The new proposal, from a group of senators including three Republicans, two Democrats, and one Independent, offers a permanent fix to the now-annual problem of Congressional meddling with interest rates by instead tying rates to the market.

The bipartisan compromise would fix the interest rate for the life of the loan, so there’d be no surprises for borrowers. It also cuts rates on unsubsidized loans used by students from middle-class families. “By charging higher rates to graduate students and on the PLUS loan program for parents, the overall plan is close to budget-neutral according to the Congressional Budget Office,” Chingos writes.

Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren has proposed letting students pay 0.75 percent interest,  ”the same ultra-low rate that banks currently get on short-term loans from the Federal Reserve,” notes Glenn Harlan Reynolds in the Wall Street Journal. Linking interest rates to the market rate is “immoral,” Warren said, rejecting an earlier Republican proposal. What’s Really ‘Immoral’ About Student Loans is not “the still historically low interest rates, but in the principal of the thing,” writes Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor who blogs as Instapundit.

Student debt, which recently surpassed the trillion-dollar level in the U.S., is now a major burden on graduates, a burden that is often not offset by increased earnings from a college degree in say, race and gender issues, rather than engineering.

According to an extensive 2012 analysis by the Associated Press of college graduates 25 and younger, 50% are either unemployed or in jobs that don’t require a college degree. Then there are the large numbers who don’t graduate at all. According to the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center, more than 40% of full-time students at four-year institutions fail to graduate within six years.

. . . According to a recent study by the New York Federal Reserve, “the share of twenty-five-year-olds with student debt has increased from just 25 percent in 2003 to 43 percent in 2012″ and “student loan delinquencies have also been growing.”

Colleges have continued to raise tuition — and add administrators — because subsidized student loans have made it possible to get away with it, writes Reynolds, author of The Higher Education Bubble. They can accept students with little chance of earning a degree or finding “gainful employment” and collect the loan money up front. “If students are unable to pay the loans back, the burden falls on taxpayers (if the loan was “guaranteed” by the federal government), and the students themselves, while the schools get off scot-free.”

A serious student-loan fix would change this incentive. First, federal aid could be capped, perhaps at a national average, or simply indexed to the consumer-price index, making it harder for schools to raise tuition willy-nilly. Second, schools that receive subsidized loan money could be left on the hook for a percentage of the loan balance if students default. I would favor allowing students who can’t pay to discharge their loan balances in bankruptcy after a reasonable time—say, five to seven years, maybe even 10—with the institutions that got the money being liable to the guarantors (i.e., the taxpayers) for, say, 10% or 20% of the balance.

“Universities would be much more careful about encouraging students to take on significant debt unless they are fully committed first to graduating, and second to a realistic career path that would enable them to service that debt over time,” Reynolds predicts.

But this goes against federal policy, which calls for all students — including those with little chance of earning a degree — to try college.