College & Workforce Readiness

Common Core, College Readiness Skills Don’t Match Up, Study Says

By Catherine Gewertz — June 09, 2016 3 min read
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Teachers might be going astray if they’re using the Common Core State Standards as a guide to build college readiness in writing, according to a new study.

The ACT’s latest National Curriculum Survey, released Thursday, points out mismatches between the skills in certain parts of the common core and the skills college instructors consider most important for success in higher education.

ACT, which was at the table when the common standards were designed, and has consistently supported them, issued a statement by Chief Executive Officer Marten Roorda saying that the findings “should not be interpreted as a rebuke of the Common Core.” The survey did, however, “highlight the disconnect between what is emphasized in the common core and what some college instructors perceive as important to college readiness,” he said.

A key area of disconnection is in writing. In response to the common standards, many middle and high school teachers have been shifting to a focus on writing from sources. But college instructors told the ACT in its survey that they place more value on students’ ability to generate good ideas for writing. The ability to analyze source texts was also prized more highly by high school teachers than by college instructors.

The survey found broader agreement about the reading skills necessary for success in college: Survey participants uniformly cited these five skills as most important: determining central ideas, identifying important details, drawing conclusions and making inferences, evaluating evidence and/or support for an author’s claims, and distinguishing among fact, opinion and reasoned judgment. But postsecondary instructors gave low marks to their incoming students’ strength in those skills.

In math, the survey showed that many teachers are resisting the common core’s layout of topics. The study found that more than 85 percent of teachers in early elementary school are still teaching some math topics that are not included in the common core, such as recognizing small numbers of objects without counting, using ordinal numbers, and identifying and extending patterns.

The ACT study speculates that this could be because teachers feel students are unprepared for the demands of later math courses: One-third of the teachers reported that fewer than half their students had appropriate math knowledge and skills when they began the school year.

Another finding might also explain their reluctance to change what they’re teaching: Fewer than 6 in 10 of elementary teachers, and less than half in middle and high school, said they thought the common core was a good reflection of college math expectations.

The survey of K-12 and college instructors, conducted every few years, included workforce supervisors and employees for the first time. And they made it clear that they place a high value on certain nonacademic skills sets.

Topping their list were acting honestly, sustaining effort, getting along with others, and maintaining composure. Since face-to-face communication is the dominant mode of communication in their workplaces, the supervisors and employees said, they value skills like conveying a knowledgeable and confident demeanor when presenting information, and presenting it in a local, organized way.

Take a look at this chart showing how various sets of skills and knowledge rate among the different groups surveyed. (These findings are in a companion report.)

The curriculum survey, which ACT uses to shape the content of its tests, was given to 9,266 participants, including elementary, middle school and high school teachers and college instructors in English, writing, math, reading and science as well as workforce supervisors and employees.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.