Are you Really Prepared for College?

Editor-at-large Walter Russell Mead points to a report showing 75 percent of entering freshman aren’t ready for college.

Three out of four graduates aren’t fully prepared for college and likely need to take at least one remedial class, according to the latest annual survey from the nonprofit testing organization ACT, which measured half of the nation’s high school seniors in English, math, reading and science proficiency.

Only 25 percent cleared all of ACT’s college preparedness benchmarks, while 75 percent likely will spend part of their freshman year brushing up on high-school-level course work. The 2011 class is best prepared for college-level English courses, with 73 percent clearing the bar in that subject. Students are most likely to need remedial classes in science and math, the report says.

Although the results are slightly better than last year — 24 percent of the 2010 graduating class met ACT’s four thresholds — the report highlights a glaring disconnect between finishing high school and being ready for the academic challenges of college.

These ACT results are another sign that states need to raise their academic standards and commit to education reforms that accelerate student achievement,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday.

Mead concurs:

The truth is that if American high schools (and middle and elementary schools) were doing their jobs, many students could get all the formal education they need in 12 years.

In any case, we need to move from a ‘time based’ to a competency based educational system. You don’t get a high school diploma because you have spent 12 years in classrooms; you get a high school diploma because you have demonstrated a certain level of core competence.

A fortiori for BA, MA and JD and PhD degrees. American students could learn much more in much less time — and at much less cost — than they now do. Making this move quickly and effectively is one of the keys to American success in the new century.

All this assumes that the primary job of high school is to prepare students for college and that all students are college material. Neither is true.

That a high school diploma should certify possession of a set of skills, rather than a dozen years of attendance, is a given. Indeed, most states have, over the last quarter century or so, moved toward standardized testing as a barrier to moving on to the next grade and to graduation. It’s possible in many states to be a straight-A student and not be permitted to graduate unless and until passing a standardized graduation exam.

While most agree, then, that a high school diploma should mean something, there’s much less agreement as to what it should mean. Surely, the ability to do basic arithmetic, read at a certain level, write a coherent paragraph should be expected of anyone as a minimum standard, and have some knowledge of basic science. But readiness to jump into a college calculus course and succeed? Basic facility with a foreign language? The ability to write a complicated expository essay? It’s possible to succeed in the white collar professional world without these skills; why should we demand it of people going off to work in the trades?

In the mid-1980s, just as I was finishing up high school, dual-tracking for college bound students began to take hold everywhere. Students who had the potential to go on to college were afforded the option to take Advanced Placement courses specifically aimed at preparing them for the rigors of a university education while those headed to trade school or straight to the work force took course aimed at teaching various life skills. It’s certainly reasonable, then, to expect those who graduate with AP or other college preparatory diplomas to be ready for college.

The burden of weeding out students who aren’t ready for college, then, should be on the colleges themselves. The admissions offices should be able to successfully pre-screen for success; if they can’t, they’re a colossal waste of resources. And four-year universities simply shouldn’t have remedial courses. Students struggling with their coursework should have tutoring available to them. If they still can’t cut the mustard, they should be sent off to community college or the work force.

As to speeding up the process so that students learn more in less time, I’m all for it. There’s no reason an undergraduate degree should take more than three years unless the student is working his way through school and can’t devote full-time energy. A master’s degree should take a year and a JD two. The PhD has gone from a two- or three-year program as recently as the late 1960s to a five- to seven-year program almost solely on the basis of keeping grad students around as cheap labor. Accelerating the process would do wonders in curtailing the skyrocketing cost of higher education. I’m not sure, though, how it would help with the problem of students who aren’t ready for college.