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Report: Schools aren't preparing kids for college
Better alignment is needed between high school and college standards, panelists say
By Meris Stansbury, Assistant Editor, eSchool News
September 13, 2007 Students are taught to believe that earning a high school diploma means they are prepared to enter college, and many policy makers and school leaders still believe that multiple-choice assessments are adequate measures of students' skills. But at a panel discussion convened by the Alliance for Excellent Education (AEE) on Sept. 12, researchers and education professionals said this is too often not the case.
"Recent studies have shown that the skills needed to succeed in college are similar to the skills needed for good-paying jobs," said Cyndie Schmeiser, president of the education division at ACT Inc., which administers the ACT college entrance exam.
Only 34 percent of students graduate from high school ready for college--and that number is smaller for minorities. Overall, it says, only 18 percent of high school freshmen graduate in four years, go on to college, and earn an associate's or bachelor's degree.
Also, one-third of those who make it to college must take remedial courses, costing the nation more than $1.4 billion every year at community colleges alone, according to the report.
The problem, panelists said, is that high school standards, assessments, and course requirements are not aligned with those of colleges. In a recent ACT poll, 65 percent of college professors said they do not believe high school standards prepare students for college.
In terms of assessments, multiple-choice tests rarely ask students to explain their reasoning or apply knowledge to new situations. "High schools are increasingly boxed in by assessments," said Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University's School of Education. "There's just a huge mess of expectations."
To help solve these problems, AEE and ACT have outlined definitions for college readiness. AEE defines it as "the knowledge and skills students need to succeed in entry-level college coursework without remediation." ACT's definition consists of four parts: habits of mind, key content knowledge, academic behaviors, and contextual skills.
"Habits of mind" refers to the skills that professors consistently identify as critical-thinking skills, such as analysis, interpretation, problem solving, and reasoning skills. Key content knowledge is the essential knowledge of each discipline that prepares students for advanced study, or study of the "big ideas" in each content area.
Academic behaviors include skills such as reading comprehension, time management, note-taking, and self-awareness of how one is thinking and learning. Contextual skills are skills needed to get into college, such as understanding the admissions process, placement testing, financial aid, and the expectations of college life.
To prepare students for success in college, panelists said, teachers must believe that all--and not just a few--students can succeed; make honors courses available as electives for all students; create rigorous work assignments using collaboration and problem-solving; teach reading comprehension and writing skills; and, most of all, motivate students to achieve.Finally, teachers need helpful, longitudinal data and the skills to interpret this information as a tool to drive individual student instruction. "With a sustained focus on college readiness, we hope to inform, assess, and improve high school teaching for the 21st-century," said Ayers. "We're trying to fundamentally change the culture and beliefs of high schools across the country."
Kim McClung, an English teacher at Kent-Meridian High School in Washington state, said most teachers teach to the "lowest common denominator, but they need to expect the best from every single student."
But the panelists acknowledged that teachers must receive support to make this happen.
For example, teachers must be given more time to collaborate with colleagues and talk with individual students. They need time to "give feedback and ask for work revisions," Darling-Hammond explained.
Teachers also must receive ongoing professional development to know their subject at a college level and to update their knowledge regularly, in order to incorporate critical-thinking skills into the classroom. For instance, a chemistry teacher not only must know the principles of chemistry, but also should encourage reading and writing skills for comprehending text, as well as preparing a lab report and analyzing results.