Beyond the Rhetoric
Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy
|| Causes of the Readiness Gap
The college readiness gap reflects the disparity between the skills and knowledge that students gain in high school versus the skills and knowledge that colleges and universities expect. In order to understand the causes of this gap, it is important first to distinguish two dimensions of it:
1. The high school diploma-college readiness gap
Earning a high school diploma does not mean that graduates are ready for college. Most states that have high school exit exams or other "high-stakes" tests readily acknowledge that the exams measure proficiency at the 8th to 10th grade levels. They are set at this level due to pressures on states and schools to minimize the numbers of students who do not receive a diploma. No Child Left Behind has reinforced this tendency, as the law holds states accountable for high school graduation rates irrespective of proficiency levels represented by the diploma. Despite competing pressures to ensure that all high school graduates are college ready, states have found it politically difficult to set high school exit exams at higher levels.
It is no surprise, then, that many students who earn a high school diploma and pass the exit exams are far from being college ready.
State leaders are familiar with this high school diploma-college readiness gap. Many have observed or participated in debates concerning how high to set the bar for passing high-stakes tests such as exit exams, and they understand that establishing proficiency at 9th or 10th grade levels assures that students can graduate from high school without college-level skills. In fact, there are powerful voices in many states that assert that a high school diploma need not indicate college readiness.
2. The college-prep-college readiness gap
It is not so well known that many high school students who fulfill all the college-preparatory requirements likewise arrive at state colleges and universities unprepared. That is, a college-preparatory curriculum is necessary but not sufficient to ensure college readiness.
Approximately half of the students entering the less-selective four-year institutions are not ready for college. Yet these students, for the most part, have completed a college-prep curriculum and have attained the required combination of grade point average and college admission test scores-in addition to earning a high school diploma and passing an exit exam. This discrepancy points to a major disconnect between college readiness as defined in terms
of course completion, credit hours, and standard assessment scores, and college readiness as defined in terms of what colleges and universities expect from entering students.
Even a recognized college-preparatory curriculum does not ensure the development of the critical thinking skills associated with reading, writing, and math that are necessary for college-level learning. These are the fundamental cross-cutting skills needed for college success in all subject areas. And they are skills that college placement or readiness tests expose as insufficiently mastered by most entering students.
Despite the fact that the college-prep curriculum does not ensure college readiness, many state leaders see the college-prep route as the solution to the readiness gap. Many states have established college-prep coursework as the default curriculum and are eager to direct more students to follow it. Because of this discrepancy between the goals of state policy and the limitations of that policy in practice, the college-prep-college readiness gap is perhaps a more important and vexing dimension of the problem than is the high school diploma-college readiness gap. It is readily apparent why a 10th grade equivalency is not likely to prepare students for college, but why is it that a college-prep curriculum leaves so many students without the learning skills needed for college-level study? The answers to this question are outlined below, and they collectively point to the need for a more fundamental and comprehensive state policy to improve college readiness.
Why a College-Prep Curriculum Often Leaves Many Students
Unprepared for College
1. P–12 and postsecondary expectations are disconnected
The overarching answer as to why a college-prep curriculum leaves so many students unprepared is that P–12 schools and postsecondary education typically set college readiness expectations independently of one another. There will be a gap between what high schools teach and what colleges expect as long as the two sectors do not develop expectations jointly. Further complicating the situation is the diffuse nature of readiness standards within college and university systems. The placement tests administered by colleges are their readiness standards, but they vary substantially across institutions (even within a state or a postsecondary system), both in the tests and cut-off scores used. Additionally, postsecondary placement tests may bear little connection to the high school curriculum or to high school assessments.
2. Courses and seat time do not guarantee skills and knowledge
The standards movement in P–12 schools argued against seat time as an indicator of satisfactory high school completion. Seat time, the argument went, does not indicate what a student knows and is able to do. Over the last 15 years, many states have emphasized mastery of specific content and performance standards, as shown through grades and statewide assessments; however, this shift to standards-based performance in the schools generally has not been extended to higher levels of achievement associated with college readiness, whose indicators still focus on courses taken. The flawed assumption has been that if students take the right courses and earn the right grades they will be ready for college. The flaw in this logic is perhaps best illustrated by contrasting the typical 12th grade English curriculum with the typical entry-level college English class. The former stresses literature while the latter stresses expository reading and writing, the key skills needed to learn in most college courses.
While many states have made progress in getting more students to take the high school courses necessary for college readiness and have strengthened the content standards in these courses, only
a few have specified an explicit set of performance skills in reading, writing, and math that signify college readiness. The emphasis has been on courses taken and knowledge gained, which is necessary and appropriate. However, equal emphasis must be placed on integrating the development of higher level learning skills in the curriculum, specifically in reading, writing, and math. Hopefully, the development of common state college readiness standards in reading, writing, and math will provide a basis that highlights and emphasizes these skill-based standards.
3. Traditional readiness assessments do not measure college readiness
College-bound students enrolled in a college-prep curriculum are advised or required to take standardized assessments like the ACT, PSAT, and SAT to gauge their readiness for college. Some states have set college readiness standards in terms of cut-off scores on these standardized tests. Standardized tests are valued for their ability to predict college success. But most of these national tests do not measure student attainment of specific college readiness skills because, for most states, explicit readiness standards have not been developed, and, for the few states that have begun to develop readiness standards, the tests have not been tailored to the state's specific curriculum and standards. P–12 teachers focus primarily on their state's standards, curriculum, and assessments.
Generic national assessments of college readiness are not connected tightly enough to the state curriculum. Unless those assessments reflect the specific readiness skills in reading, writing, and math that have been adopted across P–16 in each state, there is no assurance that helping students score well on those assessments will help them become college ready.
4. Schools and teachers are not accountable for teaching to college readiness standards
In the absence of college readiness standards, teachers have no reliable guides to focus their teaching directly on helping students attain college readiness. Instead, they can try to get students to perform well on the assessments that are used by their school or state. But unless those assessments reflect the specific readiness skills in reading, writing, and math that have been adopted across school and postsecondary systems, there is no assurance that helping students score well on those assessments will help them become college ready. Most standardized assessments are not very useful for helping teachers diagnose which college-ready skills students may be lacking, so that they can tailor the curriculum or their teaching methods accordingly.
Additionally, state high school accountability systems need to emphasize the importance of increasing the percentage of students who are college ready. Too often, accountability applies only to students meeting minimum standards. States should hold high schools accountable for increasing the percentages of their graduates who enroll in college prepared to take college courses.
5. Colleges are not accountable for degree completion
Most state accountability and finance systems do not monitor or incentivize college completion. Greater emphasis by states on accountability of higher education for completion rates would encourage colleges to join public schools in systemic and comprehensive efforts to articulate, monitor, and improve college readiness skills in reading, writing, and mathematics.