Study: Rift on Readiness Between High School, College

A new study looks at the gap in expectations between high schools, colleges and employers regarding the skills students should have mastered before being granted a high school diploma. Kenneth Terrell explains in The Atlantic that even though getting students college-ready has become a focus of the education reform movement, the actual definition of college-readiness is far from being set.

The study, published by the National Center on Education and the Economy, examined the skills demanded of incoming community college students in seven states and compared them to the skills local high schools expected their graduates to need. The findings show that introductory courses in community colleges don’t demand a high level of writing competency and that numeracy demands were even lower.

While the researchers found that “the reading and writing currently required of students in initial credit-bearing courses in community colleges is not very complex or cognitively demanding,” the report’s math findings are even more striking. The report also states that middle school math–”arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions and simple equations”–were more central to the community college math courses than the Algebra II most high schools emphasize in college readiness programs. “What really is needed in our community colleges–and really for the majority of Americans in the work that they do–is middle school math,” Tucker said.

Does that mean that community colleges have admissions standards set too low? Should they require more from their incoming students? According to Tucker, at this point in time, setting more demanding admissions requirements for community colleges would be pointless because too many students can’t even meet today’s standards.

Researchers also found that higher standards would create artificial barriers because most students won’t need advanced math in college – what they learn in middle school will suffice.

Similarly, the report found placement tests two-year colleges use to determine whether students should be in developmental education or credit-bearing courses also mismatch standards with the skills actually needed.
“It looks like we’re denying high school graduates the opportunity to take credit-bearing courses because they can’t master math that they don’t need, and that seems very unfair,” Tucker said.

Instead, “both the schools and our community colleges will have to help their students reach for different kinds of targets and, at the same time, achieve at much higher levels than they do now,” the report notes.

This sheds new light on the remediation problem that has grown more urgent in the past few years. More than 70% of community college freshmen are placed in remedial classes before they can start taking courses for credit. Since being placed in a remedial course has an impact on a student’s odds of graduating or transferring to a four-year college, it seems that giving it a second look in light of the NCEE study could be a crucial step to translating the cries for college readiness into actual college graduations.