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College Preparatory Inadequacies: Poor Courses Or Decreased Student Maturity?

May 15, 2007

An article in today’s New York Times outlines a report on the inadequacy of high school college preparatory courses. Authored by Karen Arenson, the NYT piece underscores parts of “Rigor at Risk,” a study prepared by the non-profit organization, ACT. What follows are some excerpts from the piece – interspersed with my immediate reactions and comments (bolds mine):

– “Only one-quarter of high school students who take a full set of college-preparatory courses — four years of English and three each of mathematics, science and social studies — are well prepared for college, according to a new study of last year’s high school graduates released today by ACT, the Iowa testing organization.”
– “The report analyzed approximately 1.2 million students who took the ACT college admissions test and graduated from high school last June.”

TL: This would seem to be an adequate sample set, depending on the geographic scatter.

– “The study predicted whether the students had a good chance of scoring C or better in introductory college courses, based on their test scores and the success rates of past test takers. The study concluded that only 26 percent were ready for college-level work in all four core areas, while 19 percent were not adequately prepared in any of them.”
– ” ‘It has become increasingly apparent that, while taking the right number of courses is certainly better than not, it is no longer enough,’ the report said.”

TL: So, should more courses be added, or should the quality of current courses be improved? My hunch is the latter (confirmed below by the citation of Clifford Adelman’s research).

– “Cynthia B. Schmeiser, president and chief operating officer of ACT’s education division, said she was stunned by the low level of accomplishment for students who had taken the core curriculum, which was recommended 24 years ago in “A Nation at Risk,” a United States Department of Education commission report that prompted widespread efforts to improve American education. ‘What’s shocking about this, is that since ‘A Nation at Risk,’ we have been encouraging students to take this core curriculum with the unspoken promise that when they do, they will be college-ready,’ she said.”

– TL: Just think, when ‘A Nation at Risk’ was released, it was criticized for being overly concerned with the self-selecting group of college seekers. At least this was Mortimer J. Adler’s critique of the report. If the prior critique was true, perhaps what’s changed is that the DOE is considering a larger cohort, or that a larger cohort is now explicitly concerned with going to college. Perhaps this report is simply more truly reflective of the preparatory abilities of high school?

– “ACT reported that 54 percent of last year’s graduates who took the ACT exam said they had taken at least a core curriculum.”

TL: Is it just me, or does that seem fine?

– “Those who had not taken this minimum curriculum fared even worse: only 14 percent were judged ready for college work in all four subject areas, while 36 percent were not prepared in any. The report released today, entitled ‘Rigor at Risk: Reaffirming Quality in the High School Core Curriculum,’ is a sign of growing attention to secondary education, after decades of emphasis on elementary and middle schools, and to what students are really learning in high school.”

TL: I fear this report will embolden the NCLB crowd. High school students will be punished by constant testing because of the potential mistakes of teachers.

– “In 1999, Clifford Adelman, then a researcher at the federal Department of Education, found that the strength of high school work was the most important factor in determining college success, even more than the socioeconomic status of a student’s family. The new report, which cites Mr. Adelman’s research, makes the case that many high school courses are not providing the necessary quality that he described.”

TL: Since high school academic work is pretty much universal (home schooling through high school seems rare), it’s not terribly surprising that the student’s secondary experience is the determining factor. I wonder how much socioeconomic status mattered within secondary schools with solid coursework?

– “Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, another Washington-based group that advocates standard-setting, said that as she traveled around the country, she found many schools not offering challenging work. ‘When you look at the assignments these kids get, it is just appalling,’ she said. ‘A course may be labeled college-preparatory English. But if the kids get more than three-paragraph-long assignments, it is unusual. Or they’ll be asked to color a poster. We say ‘How about doing analysis?’ and they look at us like we are demented.’ “
– “Other researchers have also found problems with the rigor of high school education. A study released last year by the National Center for Educational Accountability in Austin, Tex., for example, found that the majority of low-income students who received credit for a college-preparatory curriculum in Texas needed remedial help when they got to college. Chrys Dougherty, the center’s research director, said the ACT report showed that the problem found in Texas was widespread, and that ‘many high school students are not learning the content implied by the titles of the courses in which they are enrolled.’ “

TL: But isn’t it interesting, in the context of higher education, how many groups castigate both the bizarre course titles they see, or the absence of courses without traditional names in their titles? Of course this point just underscores the shallowness of those higher ed critics.

– “The ACT report also found that students who took more courses than the minimum core curriculum performed better on their exams, and had a greater chance of doing well in college. But even then, college readiness was not assured.”

TL: Of course “college readiness [is] not assured” by taking more courses. You can take as many as you want, but if you’re not emotionally ready or self-disciplined, you’ll fail in college. There’s a difference between being intellectually ready for college and acting like an adult.


In sum, it seems like this report overestimates the importance of cognitive factors in college preparation. For instance, if we coddle h.s. students – as some have accused with regard to “Gen Y” – then of course they will not be ready emotionally for the self-discipline needed in college. I suspect that high schools are simply too helpful and accommodating. They probably have to be in order to ward off the Baby Boom phenomenon of “helicopter parents.”

I don’t know how many times in college I was reminded of the following truism: most of college is about “time management.” The implication was that a carefully used planner might do as much for the undergraduate as being “bright.” Does the report account for this?

The challenging high school work that Adelman found to be effective probably forced students into developing good time management skills. But if more parents treated their children as little adults, and forced them into more self-reliant behaviors, perhaps more would be accomplished with the current level of high school difficulty.

I guess I’ll need to skim the report, watching for discussions about non-cognitive factors. If others have already done (or thought of) this, please save me/us the work and feel free to expand on the issue in this post’s comments. – TL


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