Not long ago I finished the semester with a wonderful group of first-year college students. Most of them were fresh out of high school, but there were also a handful of students with some other life experiences. I’m proud of the progress so many of them made in how they think about writing and how they approach writing for academic purposes and for themselves.
Some of these students struggled with issues that have nothing directly to do with writing. The demands of college-level work, in my class and in other classes, seemed to take them by surprise. By their own admission, they were not college-ready. On an end-of-the-semester reflection, one student wrote, “I’ll be honest with you. I started off college as if it was high school–you know what I’m saying–doing enough to get by. I don’t want to be that guy anymore. I want to be the one who gets the job done the first time and doesn’t have to ask if can I turn things in late.”
But isn’t college-readiness at the center of so much of what is happening in secondary education these days? How could these students emerge from some very good high schools and not be college ready?
Maybe it’s because so many high schools are overly focused on standardized testing, and the standardization movement puts the college-readiness buzzword at the core of its rhetoric. Three examples follow here, with italics added for emphasis.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation includes this statement in its College-Ready Education Strategy Review: “More than 45 states have adopted the Common Core State Standards for student learning. The standards offer a roadmap of clear expectations for college readiness, deepening what students need to know at each stage of their schooling.” The Gates Foundation overtly connects college readiness with the Common Core State Standards.
The testing vehicle for Common Core in numerous states is the PARCC test. This is how PARCC defines itself: “The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) is a group of states working together to develop a set of assessments that measure whether students are on track to be successful in college and their careers. These high quality, computer-based K–12 assessments in Mathematics and English Language Arts/Literacy give teachers, schools, students, and parents better information whether students are on track in their learning and for success after high school, and tools to help teachers customize learning to meet student needs.”
ACT also equates college readiness with testing results: “The ACT College and Career Readiness Standards (CCRS) are the backbone of ACT assessments. Empirically derived descriptions of the essential skills and knowledge students need to become ready for college and career, the Standards give clear meaning to test scores and serve as a link between what students have learned and what they are ready to learn next.”
Am I wrong in understanding that these powerful institutions are equating a student’s college readiness with that student’s standardized test performance in specific curricular areas?
Is it possible that as high schools move to standardize instruction in the name of college-readiness, they may actually be moving students farther away from the mindsets needed to successfully navigate the college experience?
The biggest challenge I see to my students’ readiness for college has at least as much to do with habits of mind as it does with curricular content. Of course, if the habits of mind are missing, the curricular content isn’t learned, but the lack of content knowledge that might be discerned by a standardized test doesn’t get at the possible causes for the deficit: poor work habits, intellectual limitations, poorly delivered instruction, or an unsupportive environment outside of school.
What I’m trying to say is that we are spending a lot of resources in high schools to establish college-readiness, at least as it is defined by the standardized testing industry, but maybe high schools should be putting more emphasis on helping students develop the habits of mind that are at least as important as the curricular aspects of college-readiness. If standardizing the high school experience for the sake of consistency is a priority, as I see happening in many schools, I’m not sure that is helping students become ready for the heterogeneous nature of college classrooms.
If we really want high school students to be college-ready, here are some suggestions for promoting a college-ready mindset in high schools:
1. Vary behavioral expectations according to grade level. High school freshmen are only months beyond junior high. High school seniors are almost legal adults, and developmentally different beings from those freshmen. Academic policies that apply to all students should instead be scaffolded so that those leaving high school have experienced at least a taste of college-level decision-making.
2. Encourage teachers to vary policies from one another, especially for upperclassmen. Students departing from high schools with four-year homogenous policies have a difficult time adjusting to the heterogeneous ranges of policies they encounter on a college campus. For the most part, college professors set their own grading, attendance, and participation policies.
3. Connect attendance to academic results. Many high schools consider attendance separately from academic performance. Of course, if a student’s attendance is poor, that student is likely to have poor academic results, but it’s not automatic. There are many ways that a high school student with poor attendance can still have a decent academic record. In many college classes, however, attendance directly affects grades. In other words, it’s not uncommon for a student’s grade to be revised downwards if absences reach a certain point. The policy in my college class is that the semester grade is dropped a full letter for every absence beyond five. This policy is one of the more lenient attendance policies in our department.
4. Encourage group work with individual accountability. The ability to work with other people is an important life skill in virtually any professional environment. High school students struggle socially with group work sometimes because they know (or think they know) their classmates so well, and some of their personal perceptions can be obstacles to group productivity. That dynamic virtually disappears with college students, especially first-year college students. They do not know each other, and their own desires to be accepted and successful lead them to treat other group members with maturity and respect.
5. Encourage personal decision-making. This one is a little tricky because high school students are minors, and college students are adults. For most big decisions involving high school students, parents are major stakeholders and should be consulted and informed frequently. That is very different for college students. College professors are not allowed to discuss a student’s situation with anyone, including parents. Parents are important partners in a high school, but they have no such role in college. Because high school students and college students have different legal statuses, the rules have to be different, but high schools should look for ways to encourage students to practice making good decisions independently.
The strongest students will be college ready in both ways: academically and behaviorally. Those who slop through high school and then arrive on a college campus with the same attitude will not make it without major attitudinal adjustments. Those who are behaviorally ready but not quite there academically will find ways to succeed in college by perseverance and support from the academic services available on most campuses.
Isn’t it time to reconsider what college-readiness means by looking at it through a lens that goes beyond standardized testing paradigms to include what it actually takes to be successful in college? True college-readiness cannot be distilled into a number. True college-readiness includes both a focused, mature mindset and academic preparedness.
What are your thoughts on what it takes to be truly college ready?