The Ongoing College Readiness Debate

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Who should go to college?  Obviously, those students who aspire to and those who are seriously prepared — or who at least believe they are and are ready for the challenge.  But what do we owe those students who either don’t have those aspirations or are not prepared to be successful?  The truth.

Often, according to an insightful essay of several months back by my friend Michael Petrilli in Education Next, large numbers of students are not getting the truth from their elders (or at least don’t believe it), and he cites compelling data to back this up.

Consider what he calls the “college preparation gap”, defined as the gap between the college enrollment rate, the percentage of high school graduates in the trailing 12 months who enrolled in college, and the percentage who were prepared to be there, based on reading scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  From 1992 to 2013 this gap ranged from 21% to 32%.  And sure enough, recently published data reflects that only 53% of the students who began higher education in 2009 had earned a degree six years later.

Petrilli believes that most ordinary people are fully aware of this gap in student capability, but are either too “politically correct” to admit it publicly or, in the case of college administrators, are admitting far too many unqualified students by withholding the truth in the interest of maintaining tuition revenue.

We have been having this conversation for as long as I have been involved with education issues.  And there is no doubt that, as Petrilli makes clear, we are not going to set high school exit exams at four-year college readiness levels, which would deny a majority of 18-year olds a high school diploma.  Many leading analysts have suggested a two-tiered high school graduation standard and diploma, and most states have a basic diploma option one with less rigor. But we must be very careful here that we do not engage in “tracking” kids by lowering standards and expectations, which is a risk and a tendency when dealing with high stakes accountability.

So what is the answer?  Well, more of the truth, for sure, but I would add another element.  I am not yet ready to give up on the policy of “one standard, multiple pathways, equal rigor” for all students.  In Texas several years ago, a state commission on which I served attempted to answer the question “what defines success” in a high school diploma; in our deliberations, the term “postsecondary readiness” was chosen to reflect the conviction that success in college and the workplace require the same level of rigorous preparation. The following definition was adopted:

“Postsecondary readiness is the range of academic, workforce, and social proficiency that high school students should acquire to successfully transition to skilled employment, advanced training in the military, an associate’s degree, a bachelor’s degree, or technical certification, without the need for remediation.”

The proxy for this standard is community college readiness without the need for remediation.  Should this be the minimum for a high school diploma for 100% of students?  Of course not, but we can certainly set the bar higher than it currently stands, and I would hope that we could make this expectation the default standard, then incrementally increase expectations to meet it to a level of at least 60% in a decade or so.  Am I dreaming?  Maybe, but the alternatives are not pretty.

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