31 December 2008

Under Prepared College Students

Many college students need to take remedial courses at the high school level before they are ready for college level work.

One-third of Colorado high school graduates need remedial classes when they start college every year. . . . This year, about 30 percent of the state's high school graduates who attended college had to take at least one remedial class in reading, writing or math. Among first-time students at community colleges, that number is almost 60 percent.

Students say the classes are onerous. They're not particularly interesting, they don't count toward a degree and they cost roughly $250 per class. . . .

At Denver's Abraham Lincoln High School, 43 percent of graduates needed at least one remedial math or reading class in 2006. This year, that number jumped to 78 percent. At Aurora Central High School, 57 percent of graduates needed remediation in 2006. That number increased to 71 percent in 2008. . . .

School districts think that a diploma should mean students can pass entry-level math and reading in college. Colleges think middle and high school teachers should know how to prepare students for tougher course work.

Making Distinctions

Some students are farther behind than others.

Math is the most common area where remediation is needed, and for a plurality of students needing remedial work, this means taking the equivalent of a single trig or pre-calculus class because they only mastered two years of algebra and a year of geometry in high school.

Most students who need only a little remedial math, who have solid literacy skills, usually go on to major in an area where advance math is not required, like the humanities or elementary or middle school education or special ed, take the mininmum number of math and science courses in college at the most basic level that will satisfy the curricular requirements ("rocks for jocks" captures the concept, if not the specific courses actually taken), and go on with their lives.

Indeed, a stronger focus on academics for these marginal students, who need only a course or two of remedial work in mathematics, probably could greatly reduce the remediation rate for college bound students, and increase college graduation rates as well.

More troubling are college bound students who need remedial reading or writing classes, or more basic math instruction (the equivalents of high school geometry and algebra one, or more basic math classes, for example). If a student is missing some specific mathematics background, the solution is to take a class and success or failure in overcoming that gap is easy to evalute with a paper and pencil test.

But, deficits in general literacy or basic numeracy are typically much less straight forward to remedy. If you are eighteen or nineteen years old and can't read at a college level, an English class or two is unlikely to remedy that problem for someone whose native language is English. Further, while a single math class may be enough to bring an otherwise college ready student to a state where that student is clearly as prepared as anyone else, even if reading and writing remediation gets a student over some arbitrary requirement, it is likely to just barely do so.

Also, we know that academically unprepared students are at a high risk of swiftly dropping out of college, even if they can complete remedial classes. While this doesn't mean that improving literacy and basic numeracy isn't workwhile for those students, it does make remediation for the purpose of preparing these students for college a questionable goal.

If English is your native language, and you had a typically American upbringing complete with twelve years of public or Catholic school attendance, and you can't handle basic math, or have sufficient literacy to function in college, jobs that require a four year college education or a rigorous two year program (like an associates degree in nursing) are probably not a good idea for you in any case. You should not be a teacher, or doctor, or registered nurse, or lawyer, or stock broker. You should not run for President or U.S. Senator. Pre-college preparation may make sense if you need it to get a two year degree in a not terribly rigorous program so you can have a credential for a career where the focus in not on math or literacy. But, otherwise, you should be focusing on whatever literacy or life skills are the greatest barrier for you in life, not on going to college.

A Systemic Issue

The numbers are not surprising. They are an inevitable consequence of a system where marginally compliant participation is enough to graduate from high school at age eighteen, and a significant proportion of the higher education system admits all high school graduates and GED completers on an open admissions or very nearly open admissions basis.

American public high schools are currently designed so that anyone who is moderately compliant and isn't seriously developmentally disabled can graduate with their peers. We have been moving in this direction, more or less steadily, since the late 1940s and early 1950s. As a result of this underlying American approach to K-12 education, the U.S. has among the highest high school graduation rates in the world, but in exchange, has a large swath of students who are completing a very non-rigorous academic program.

Almost every other country in the world has more rigorous standards for earning a high school diploma, that are more on a par with what is necessary to do college level academic work. Essentially, no one who wouldn't be well prepared to, and likely to, at least complete a two year college degree in the U.S., graduates from high school in the vast majority of the countries in the world.

As a result, these countries have lower graduation rates. They offer better career prospects for high school graduates with no further education, since a high school diploma meaningfully sorts by ability). They attach a less severe stigma to dropping out of high school, since far more of their high school dropouts are capable of functioning in society generally, and in a workplace in particular, as compliant, reasonable individuals.

An American high school diploma, in contrast, guarantees an ability to function in some sort of work setting and as a particpating member of society, but doesn't guarantee that the graduate has any skill other than basic newpaper reading level literacy, and rudimentary arithematic skills.

More people fail to graduate from high school because they skip class, don't turn in work, are a disciplinary problem, or get pregnant, than fail because they simply aren't smart enough to barely complete the minimum number of high school classes required to graduate at the lowest level of rigor available. Indeed, otherwise compliant children who are not smart enough to complete high school level work frequently do graduate by completed an individualized education plan. The K-12 education system places a greater premium on socialization than it does on academic achievement.

On the other hand, high school dropouts tend to be non-compliant, in part, because academics don't come easily to them. Most were performing far below grade level and doing less than satisfactory work in class five or ten years, before dropping out. If you are bad at school but sweet, you graduate. If you have serious trouble in school, and are a troublemaker, you don't.

American higher education, in contrast, has generally required that its graduates be able to function in terms of literacy and numeracy, in a mangerial or professional or technical or higher level administrative or sales position. The requirements for a four year degree are typically set at levels that no one with below average academic ability can meet.

Social promotion is the norm, rather than the exception, for students in the K-12 system who are performing below grade level academically. It is quite rare for a child in the K-12 system to be held back a year, and even more rare for a child in the K-12 system to be held back more than one year; but it is also rare for a student to be moved ahead a year, and is very rare for a stduent to be moved ahead more than a year.

In contrast, colleges and universities routinely fail students who fail to perform, particularly in math, the sciences and foreign languages. Flunk rates of 50% or more in first semester college calculus, physics, chemistry and first year foreign language classes are not unusual at colleges and universities that aren't highly selective. The humanities and social sciences, and pre-professional teaching and business classes are less likely to flunk students, but are far more likely to dish out poor grades to students who don't perform satisfactorily.

By the time college and university students in four year undergraduate programs have completed their sophmore year, a large percentage of the entering class, and the lion's share of students who will drop out, have been culled from the program. Associates degree programs that require math or science have typically culled academically unprepared students by the end of the first year.

It is easier to earn a college degree despite fairly weak academic ability now than it was fifty years ago, as the percentage of students attending colleges and universities has ballooned, but colleges and universities still maintain some meaningful academic standards.

While not every person academically capable of graduating from college does graduate, and while financial need is an important factor preventing many academically capable people from graduating, the notion that every child can graduate from high school ready for college, and in turn earn a college degree is a pipe dream. It is impossible without dramatically easing the academic requirements for earning a college degree.

A large percentage of people, probably well over a majority, of people who do not earn college degrees in our current system are incapable of doing so without extraordinary support from a team of tutors in every subject in addition to their actual professors, and a full time personal life coach to manage them.

Right now, about 60% of high school graduates attend some college and about half of them earn college degrees. To make every high school graduate ready for college, even with diligent efforts and reforms, we would have to deny high school diplomas to 10-20% of people who are now college bound high school graduates, and a much larger percentage of the roughly 40% of high school graduates who never even attend a college. Realistically, high school graduation rates would have to be cut by at least 30-40% to limit high school diplomas to students who are actually ready for college, even if we intensified efforts to better prepare students on the margins.

This isn't a product of bad K-12 teaching. A large percentage of people are simply incapable of reaching a college level of academic readiness without vastly greater resources (by which I mean several times as many educators per student and changed curricular methods) devoted to them, and those students would be less successful in higher education than existing college students, even then.

The unequivocal evidence from vast amounts of educational testing is that students who are performing at a low academic level at the third and fourth and fifth grades, face overwhelming odds against ever catching up without interventions not found even in schools that are safely in the top quarter or fifth the scale by every measure of teaching input quality, overall academic success and instructional progress. It may not be impossible to achieve this goal, but it is practically impossible within anything even vaguely resembling our current system.

The evidence also overwhelmingly suggests that the disparities in academic performance seen by the late elementary years have only the most modest connections to disparities in what happens within elementary schools themselves. Students are not one or two grade levels behind in third grade because their kindergarten, first and second grade teachers were awful.

Realistic Options

I don't favor converting to a Japanese/European high school model where far more people don't earn diplomas. In the American federal system, this would stigmatize and disadvantage students who now earn diplomas and don't go to college, to an unjustifiable extent. The states that innovated first, would hurt their own students the most in a national labor market where a failure to receive a high school diploma has dire economic conseqeuences.

But, it wouldn't hurt to have an "extra" certification or commendation for students who are truly ready for college, that could be part of a high school diploma or independent. It might also make sense to make that "college ready" credential something that one could earn in local community colleges, which are better designed to deal with these students, than either high schools and four year colleges and universities, neither of which is well adapted to non-traditional students.

Finally, college admissions offices and financial aid offices should make a distinction between truly college ready students, who ought to be able to gain admission somewhere in the public higher education system and who should receive adequate financial aid based if needed, and high school graduates who are not "college ready" who should not be admitted, funded, and essentially encouraged to fail as a way of financing more academically able students.

Instead, students who are high school graduates who are not college ready should be encouraged and funded to participate in either college ready certifiction programs, or career and life oriented continuing education and certification programs, set up as another wing of the community college system with programs that are useful requiring less sustained study and less academic ability than ordinary community college programs. Indeed, some associate degree and certificate programs that don't require high levels of literacy or high level mathematics should be reassigned to this division -- expanding opportunities for high school graduates, while helping to restore the rigor associated with the remaining two year programs.


Amy said...

May I cite this post in my own blog? I've been reflecting on my own experiences in teaching and advising college freshmen, and you make some very good points here.

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Yes, although, a link back would be appreciated.

Amy said...

Done--thank you very much.