Effect of College Requirements on High-School Academics Said Slight

By Thomas Toch — March 28, 1984 4 min read

Racine, Wis--The recent tightening of admission standards by many state systems of higher education is likely to have little influence on the academic standards in the high schools, educators meeting here were told.

“The changes at our flagship state universities all involve only jiggling with benchmarks,” Clifford Adelman, an official at the National Institute of Education, told a group of about 40 leaders from higher and precollegiate education gathered at the Wingspread Conference Center to discuss the “school college-connection.”

“There is a huge difference between requirements and standards, and it has been all but ignored in the current debate,” said Mr. Adelman, who spoke at the conference as a private citizen.

Several speakers declared that requirements for better grades or more courses will not do as much to contribute to higher academic standards as a clear, detailed outline of the skills and knowledge that should be expected of college applicants.

“The number of courses students have taken is far less important than the content of the courses and whether the students have mastered it,” said Michael O’Keefe, president of the Consortium for the Advancement of Private Higher Education. “Unfortunately, college admissions requirements place little emphasis on the content of the high-school course. In fact, 50 percent of the colleges in the country require no more than a high-school diploma and a minimum test score.”

No Consensus

The absence of clear admissions standards at many colleges and universities, conference participants noted, in part reflects the lack of a national consensus on what high-school graduates applying to college should know.

“Very simply,” Mr. O’Keefe said, “we have to decide what it is we are going to expect of someone who is applying to college.” He suggested that the effort by Project EQuality of the College Board to build such a consensus is a promising “‘first step,” but he said that states and professional organizations must define the skills in more detail.

One way to communicate such a common core of knowledge to students and the schools, they said, is for colleges and universities to require achievement tests that measure students’ attainment in the skills and subjects identified as important.

“Were more colleges to require that students present such tests as part of the set of credentials offered for admission, the character of the tests would drive the content of the secondary-school curriculum,’' said Mr. Adelman, who was the chief staff member for the National Commission on Excellence in Education. “Tests that do not require active thought and writing do nothing to influence student expectations and aspirations.”

Achievement Tests Proposed

To that end, Mr. O’Keefe, who participated in the study of American high schools by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, proposed that colleges that now require aptitude tests “drop their use as a measure of college readiness” and substitute acheivement tests.

“It is time to retire the sat [Scholastic Aptitude Test] and the act [American College Test],” he said. “The purpose of the sat is confusing to too many people and a college-entrance exam should not just decide admissions, but help define the high-school curriculum. Those tests don’t do that.”

Colleges that do not now require an aptitude-test score for admissions should also initiate a requirement for achievement tests, Mr. O’Keefe said, even if the college has an open admission policy.

But Gregory R. Anrig, president of the Educational Testing Service, which creates and administers the sat, countered that he was “troubled with using tests as a vehicle for reform.”

“It’s a top-down means,” he added, “and as a result, those kinds of ‘reform’ are never lasting.”

Tests and Enrollments

A few states, such as California, are developing new achievement examinations, similar to the Regents Examinations in New York, that students will have to pass in order to receive a high-school diploma.

Some of those attending the three-day conference warned, however, that declining numbers of college-age students will make it difficult for many colleges to pay closer attention to the qualifications of their applicants.

“There is no way in the world I’m going to reduce my enrollment from 20,000 to 10,000 in the name of excellence in education,” John W. Porter, president of Eastern Michigan University, told the conference.

At the same time, Mr. Adelman noted, a large proportion of all college students are attending community colleges, virtually all of which have open admissions policies.

Mr. Porter and other conference participants expressed substantial concern that the current focus on bolstering the academic performance of the college-bound may leave large numbers of other students floundering.

“There are serious tradeoffs that have to be considered,” Mr. Anrig said. “It is a difficult policy issue.”

The conference was sponsored by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, and the Johnson Foundation.

A report of the conference is scheduled to be sent to school leaders.

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 1984 edition of Education Week as Effect of College Requirements on High-School Academics Said Slight