What really is “College Ready”?

As a community college teacher, I and my colleagues have seen many students who have technically completed their high school requirements, yet they lack both the academic skills and the maturity to handle college level work. This includes students from public and private schools (contrary to the persistent myth that all private schools are great, and all public schools are horrible). We’ve seen high school valedictorians crash and burn in their Freshman level core courses; meanwhile, other students whose transcripts and placement scores say they are not ready, make astounding progress and graduate.

Those of us who value and understand student learning have long argued that student progress along the educational continuum should be determined by demonstrated knowledge, not age, seat time, or test scores. Although most systems still try to convey students through school on a linear assembly line, each student experiences the teaching/learning processes differently. These individual differences are generally not picked up by traditional standardized tests which are not designed for that level of specificity, particularly if those test results are not properly analyzed in a timely way by classroom teachers familiar with the student.

Colleges usually determine readiness with placement tests that are often not aligned with the curriculum actually taught in PK-12 schools, and certainly not with many state high school exit exams. For example, the skills most needed for success in a class such as Freshman English Composition, are those most likely to have been reduced or eliminated at the high school level in favor of more generic ones that show up on state tests. My own college’s study of incoming freshmen over a five year period found that the deeper our feeder schools moved into the state testing program in English, the poorer students’ writing ability and grammar usage had become. The question is not when should students be allowed to leave high school; it’s what should they know and be able to do when we declare them ready to move on to the next phase of their lives.

Everything in education for the past century has been time-based in an effort to apply a factory-efficiency model to the academic preparation of children. As my colleague and co-author, Shannon C’de Baca noted in our book, TEACHING 2030: What We Must Do for Our Students and Our Public Schools Now and in the Future:

Our knowledge of how people learn continues to expand exponentially. We have significant data and instruments that can help us determine individual learning preferences. And yet we adhere to a system of assembly-line education delivery that requires all students to resent their thinking every 50 minutes, all the while expecting them to master increasingly complex content that does not chunk easily into small boxes of time. It just doesn’t work. (p. 93).

I currently teach dual enrollment high school students [high school students taking college courses], most of whom are the top students within their local schools. Sadly, many of the skills and habits that have brought them success at the secondary level, lead to frustration and even failure in their college courses. Yet, they have done everything they’ve been asked to do.

One step towards correcting this misalignment is to treat education, particularly what we now consider secondary (middle school/high school) and college levels as a continuum both pedagogically and fiscally. Rather than diverting funds, as Gov. Daniels suggests, merge the resources, the curriculum, and the instruction to produce a more coherent, individualized, and rigorous educational system for all children.

Originally posted May 9, 2011 at NationalJournal.com, Expert Blogs: Education

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