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Graduates Often Lack Basic Skills, Critics Claim

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Washington--High-school graduates who enter the worlds of business, college, or the military are likely to find themselves right back in a classroom if their basic reading, writing, and math skills are so poor that they cannot carry out their assigned tasks.

That theme was echoed by speakers from each of the three sectors during "The American High School: Time for Reform," a conference for educators sponsored by the Council for Basic Education (cbe). The speakers had been asked to discuss the significance of the high-school diploma.

For example, the high school diploma has both positive and negative implications for the Department of Defense (dod), according to Gerald B. Kauvar, a special assistant for education in dod The Department employs nearly 4 million people.

Better Job Performance

"It is less costly to train high-school-diploma graduates than it is to train non-high-school graduates," Mr. Kauvar said. "They perform better on the job and on tests." Also, rates of attrition are lower among high-school graduates, although they are less likely to re-enlist than are those who did not graduate.

For military officials, possession of the high-school diploma is also evidence of a recruit's social adjustment and of motivation, Mr. Kauver said.

But the bad news, he noted, is that the dod nonetheless finds many recruits who cannot perform their assigned tasks until they go through remedial programs in reading, mathematics, and other areas. "It has been necessary for the department to implement basic-skills programs to repair the deficiencies in literacy, numeracy [sic], and life-coping skills found in all-too-many of today's high-school graduates," Mr. Kauvar said.

In addition to investing heavily in "the simplification of job materials," the department has been at the forefront of research into basic skills and functional literacy. "dod has programs that address those enlistees who cannot read at the fifth-, seventh-, or ninth-grade levels," Mr. Kauvar said.

Businesses find similar deficiencies in high-school graduates who apply for jobs, according to Anne Wingate, vice-president for planning and research for the Connecticut Business and Industry Association. They seek applicants who have solid skills in reading, mathematics, writing, and communicating, but most employers do not think graduates need to have exposure to "vocational equipment."

Training for Better Skills

The exception to this, she added, is the "growing belief" in the business community that exposure to computer terminals and information-processing concepts is very helpful for all high-school and college graduates.

"They expect to have to train people for higher skills, and they expect to have to retrain workers in future years," Ms. Wingate said. "They accept that responsibility, but they do not accept or understand school systems that do not place basic skills as minimum goals for all students."

Nevertheless, Ms. Wingate said, many businesses have started programs to teach employees the skills that they did not learn in high school. "They would prefer not to have to provide basic education, obviously. Through state and local taxes they already heavily support elementary and secondary education. But some already do this type of educating," she said. For example, she noted, Pratt & Whitney, Hamilton Standard, and Sikorsky--all divisions of United Technologies--both teach basic skills and offer high-school-equivalency diplomas.

Ms. Wingate also mentioned a "rumor" that one of Connecticut's largest companies is con6sidering running its own "alternative high school." She declined to identify the company.

Colleges and universities face somewhat different problems, according to another speaker. The "largest answer" to the question of what the high-school diploma means to admissions officers is, "everything and nothing," said John T. Casteen iii, dean of admissions at the University of Virginia.

The better applicants offer an unusually strong sense of academic purpose; weak candidates are unable to offer any articulate explanation of how the high-school education serves their goals, he said. Solid candidates also bring strong records of high-school achievement, although grade inflation is a serious problem. "Records have come to mean less than they used to," he said.

The weaknesses of the high-school graduates, as they appear in applicants for university admission, are myriad, he said. "There is ageneral decline in foreign languages, mathematics, and sciences," said the admissions director, adding that students display "a tendency to choose the easier option."

Poor writing is another trouble spot. "The problem is both conceptual and mechanical," he said.

Alternatives Weaken Diploma

Mr. Casteen ventured the opinion that "alternatives to schooling" such as "work experience" and vocational education also weaken the high-school diploma.

"What's happened?" he asked. "Students have become too used to having their own way. Schools value affect over effect. It's more important that the population be content than competent."

The University of Virginia offers remedial courses for those admitted with inadequate preparation. These "quick fixes" are not effec


tive for everyone, Mr. Casteen said, since fewer than one-third of those in remedial programs ever graduate from the university.

More answers to the question, "What does the high-school diploma mean?" may emerge as the six studies now underway on American high schools are completed. (See Education Week, Oct. 26.) Representatives from several of the organizations that are sponsoring the studies also spoke at the cbe conference.

Michael O'Keefe, vice president for program and policy studies for the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, described the study that the foundation is conducting.

He also noted some of the reasons the American high school is a topic of such interest now. There is evidence of stress on secondary schools, he said, which are burdened with too-high expectations from the public.

"The secondary schools have allowed themselves to be arrayed with an endless series of goals," he said, adding that it may be time to eliminate some of them. The Carnegie study is expected to be completed by late 1983.

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