School & District Management

High School, College Standards Out of Sync, Survey Finds

By Lynn Olson — April 10, 2007 4 min read
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A study released today highlights the gap between what high schools are teaching in their college-preparatory courses and what colleges want incoming students to know.

The study, by the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT Inc., the producer of the ACT college-admissions tests, is based on a national curriculum survey of more than 6,500 middle school, high school, and postsecondary English, reading, math, and science teachers. The testing company conducts the survey every three to five years to help shape the content of its assessments.

The new survey found that college professors generally want incoming students to have a deeper understanding of a selected number of topics and skills, while high school teachers in all content areas tend to rate a far broader array of content and skills as “important” or “very important.”

“Aligning Postsecondary Expectations and High School Practice: The Gap Defined” and the full national curriculum survey are available from ACT.

Cynthia B. Schmeiser, the president and chief operating officer of ACT’s education division, blamed the gap largely on the state academic-content standards that high school teachers must follow. “State learning standards are often too wide and not deep enough,” she said. “They are trying to cover too much ground—more ground than colleges deem necessary—in the limited time they have with students.”

Earlier studies by the ACT have also focused on gaps in students’ college readiness by examining how high school students’ coursetaking relates to their scores on admissions exams and their grades in college. (“Views Differ on Defining College Prep,” April 26, 2006.)

The new study strikes a similar theme, but looks more closely at the actual content knowledge and skills that high school teachers say they are teaching within their courses, and how important they rate that content compared with ratings by postsecondary instructors.

Although the ACT has been conducting the National Curriculum Survey since the 1970s, Ms. Schmeiser said, until now it has largely used that information for internal purposes, to ensure its tests reflect postsecondary expectations.

“In today’s environment, when we have so many P-16 conversations going on and alignment is such a critical issue,” she said in an interview, “I think it’s really important that we bring these data and make them more available and accessible to policymakers.”

More than half the states are now working to better align high school standards, tests, and curricula with college expectations. An equally large number have created so-called “P-16” or “P-20” councils to help coordinate goals and activities across the various levels of education, from preschool through college or graduate school.

State Standards Sized Up

In general, the ACT survey found, college instructors take a dim view of their states’ academic-content standards for high schools.

Nearly two-thirds of those respondents (65 percent) said their state standards prepare students “poorly” or “very poorly” for college-level work in their respective subject areas. In contrast, a majority of high school teachers said their state standards are preparing students “well” or “very well” for college-level work.

The study also highlights significant differences between high school instruction and college expectations in specific curriculum areas. For example:

  • In writing, postsecondary instructors tended to value the basic mechanics of writing (such as sentence structure and punctuation) more highly than high school teachers did. High school English teachers rated topic and idea development as the most important set of skills.

  • In mathematics, postsecondary instructors rated being able to understand and rigorously apply fundamental skills and processes as more important than exposure to more advanced math topics. High school math teachers tended to view the latter as important. Postsecondary instructors also placed far more emphasis on being able to understand new material by reading a textbook.
  • In reading, the survey found a general lack of reading courses in high school and a decline in the teaching of targeted reading strategies after the 9th grade. In contrast, college instructors of remedial courses rated such strategies as very important and reported devoting a large percentage of time to teaching them.
  • In science, high school teachers consistently rated content as more important to student success than science process or inquiry skills, in direct contrast to both middle school and postsecondary science teachers.
  • Ms. Schmeiser suggested that state content standards for high schools focus on the most essential knowledge and skills needed for college readiness, rather than covering the waterfront. Her recommendation echoes calls from others to refocus state content standards on a smaller subset of big or powerful ideas that could guide students’ development within a content area.


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