College & Workforce Readiness Commentary

Chat Wrap-Up: College and Career Readiness

January 23, 2007 6 min read

On Jan. 10, David S. Spence, the president of the Southern Regional Education Board, answered readers’ questions on college and career readiness. He had addressed this topic in depth in a special Commentary for Quality Counts 2007, which was released on Jan 4. Below are excerpts from the discussion:

Question: What are the most crucial skills we need to help our students develop?

Spence: The most crucial, in my view, are the skills students will need in order to learn at higher levels. The capacity to read with comprehension across academic disciplines, to write well, and to think logically, symbolically, and abstractly (as in math) are fundamental to further learning, whether in an academic or an applied context.

Read a full transcript of this chat.

Question: What is the first step in getting at-risk youths and young adults interested in higher education?

Spence: You might arrange for students to associate personally with those who are seeing the benefits of higher education, especially those who started from similar backgrounds. Identifying these students early is crucial, and connecting them, person-to-person, with adults from the school or community on a mentoring basis is important. There are no shortcuts to this challenge.

Question: Unfortunately, by the time students reach high school, many of them may be seriously deficient in basic literacy and numeracy skills. How can we improve curriculum and instruction before students reach high school, to ensure that their secondary instruction is not merely remedial, but is meaningful and rigorous enough to prepare them well for college work?

Spence: While preparation for the next levels of education works its way up, the setting of standards works best by establishing what’s required at the higher levels and then “laddering” these standards down to the earlier educational levels. The biggest deficiency in the college-readiness movement in all states still is the fact that we have not set clear standards for what students need to know and be able to do before they enter college. Without explicit college-readiness standards in reading, writing, and mathematics, set in understandable and measurable performance terms, there is nothing that can be mapped in a systematic way to grades 6-12. How can we expect all of a state’s teachers to teach to college-readiness standards if the state and its postsecondary education institutions have not established one set of clear college-readiness standards?

Question: Are high schools preparing students effectively for the use of technology in higher education and future careers? In my experience, many students know more about technology than teachers, but their use of the programs and hardware is limited to lightweight social networking and entertainment, rather than to research, enlightenment, or education. How do you suggest we incorporate technology in educational standards?

Spence: The Educational Testing Service is doing good work in this area through its Information and Communication Technology, or ICT, literacy assessment. It’s geared toward measuring the cognitive and technical skills students will need to succeed at postsecondary levels. The standards on which these assessments are based could be used to “map down” and infuse technology skills into high school standards, curriculum, and assessments. This is a good example of how postsecondary standards can lead the process of revising high school standards to include college readiness.

Question: I think schools do a fairly good job of preparing students for college, but not for life after high school if they are not college-bound. Do the powers that be know what needs to be done for them?

Spence: All students need to develop the learning skills to succeed in meaningful careers, whether they go to college or not. You might look at the recent ACT study on the similarity among the skills needed by college-bound and career-oriented students. Many state and local education leaders need to do more to ensure that career-oriented students get the academic skills they will need, no doubt about it. My organization, the Southern Regional Education Board, in Atlanta, can provide states and school districts with additional help along these lines.

Question: Isn’t this all a case of putting the cart before the horse? Let’s get students through high school first. A 70 percent graduation rate in the United States? This incredible shortfall must be the crucial focus of inquiry.

Spence: It’s not a “cart-and-horse” or “either-or” issue. Our goal as a nation must not be 100 percent proficiency for all students who graduate from high school. Instead, it should be that 100 percent of students graduate from high school proficient, with proficiency defined as readiness for college, or careers, or both. Our high school graduation rates nationally are awful, I agree, but completion without achievement and readiness is an empty result. We can do better at both rates of completion and levels of readiness if we are clear about what readiness means. Then we can gear our schools toward meeting college-readiness standards.

Question: Why do we insist on assuming that the service providers themselves—colleges of education, for example—have all of the answers? Aren’t these the folks who have been part of the basic problem? What is being done to change “the system”?

Spence: Nobody has all the answers. But the college- and career-readiness problem is both a structural and an organizational challenge. Getting all of postsecondary education in a state to agree on the same readiness standards, making the standards part of the state-adopted K-12 academic standards, including these standards fully as part of the state assessments and accountability systems, and having teacher professional development (and new teacher-preparation programs) help teachers to know the standards and teach them in their classrooms—these are as much organizational as political challenges. The substance is doable. Gaining statewide priority and consensus is hard.

Question: Much of what is driving these initiatives is standardized testing. Given that research indicates that high school GPA is the best predictor of college success, why are we continuing to recommend policy decisions on the basis of standardized testing, which fails to adequately describe student performance in the schools?

Spence: What we find in many states is that very high proportions of students with grade-point averages higher than 3.0 still need remedial education. We need common testing for placement and readiness, because high school grades do not assure readiness in terms of students’ being able to meet explicit performance expectations in reading, writing, and math. Many high school grades apparently do not align with meeting these skills standards.

Question: The definition of college readiness varies from state to state and institution to institution. Is anything being done to promote a common, national standard of college readiness?

Spence: I believe the state is the best and most practical context for promoting a common set of standards for college readiness. Even at the state level, I don’t count any state as having developed one set of standards for readiness until the standards have been adopted by all of postsecondary education within the state. This step has to be accomplished before the other parts of the readiness agenda can proceed. Often, an obstacle to this consensus across all of postsecondary education is that these readiness standards are confused with admissions criteria. They are related, but separate.

A version of this article appeared in the January 24, 2007 edition of Education Week as Chat Wrap-Up: College and Career Readiness


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