The pattern emerges every year on campuses with the regularity of homecoming games and parents’ weekends: Students who finished high school with strong grade point averages and top-notch test scores struggle upon entering college, buckling under the new rigors of freshman English or entry-level calculus.
This month, researchers at the University of Oregon are unveiling the results of a project aimed at helping students overcome the traditional divide between success at the K-12 level and the expectations of universities.
After two years of study, the university’s Center for Educational Policy Research is expected within weeks to release an 80-page document titled “Understanding University Success,” outlining the knowledge and skills students need to prosper during their first year on campus. That written report, and a accompanying CD-ROM, will be sent to every public high school in the country— about 20,000 institutions in all.
The guidelines grew out of interviews with more than 400 university faculty and staff members, as part of a project called Standards for Success. The effort was sponsored by the Association of American Universities, a Washington organization representing research institutions, and the Pew Charitable Trusts, based in Philadelphia.
Along with the standards for university success, the researchers produced “university work samples,” a library of college-level assignments, syllabuses, and other information, included on the CD-ROM; and a “state high school assessment database,” a collection of information about standardized exams and assessments in all 50 states.
The primary audience for the database is university officials, but the general public will eventually be able to access the information on the center’s Web site.
Even before it arrives at high schools, the Oregon project has captured the interest of one important backer: the College Board.
Best known for sponsoring the SAT, the nation’s most widely used college-admissions exam, the College Board had entered into a licensing agreement to use the center’s guidelines as the board develops its own standards for college success. The College Board also plans to use the Oregon standards to make future changes to the SAT, aimed at making the exam more reflective of students’ abilities to handle college work, said Wayne Camara, the vice president of research and development for the New York City-based board.
“We want to measure, ‘What are the skills you need to be successful in college, regardless of what high school you went to?’” Mr. Camara said. The new version of the SAT, he added, will be a better gauge “not about what [students] mastered in high school, but whether they’re prepared to make it at the next level.”
The director of Standards for Success, David T. Conley, believes its college standards will have value to students, parents, teachers, and administrators nationwide. The document is divided into six academic-content areas: English, mathematics, natural sciences, social sciences, second languages, and the arts.
“What we’re really asking is that students develop their cognitive abilities much more than they do in high school,” Mr. Conley said.
Each section begins with “knowledge and skills foundations,” overall principles touching on issues such as study skills and overall approaches to coping with college work, by subject area. Each chapter then follows with more specific expectations in each subject.
In English, for instance, students are told they should be “active readers” of college texts, summarizing and critiquing material and noticing patterns. The section then concludes with more specific standards, such as understanding the difference between a Shakespearean sonnet and free verse, or being able to recognize literature from different genres.
In mathematics, students are asked to strive to understand the relationship between different concepts, rather than just a series of detached procedures. Later, the document says students should have a working knowledge of specific math concepts, in areas such as computation and algebra, using tools such as exponents, scientific notation, linear equations, and geometric properties.
The report’s advice on writing—craft outlines in advance, rewrite work, accept criticism—spoke to the experience of Albert R. Matheny, a professor of political science at the University of Florida, who directs the school’s academic-advising center. Even as the pool of freshmen seemed to get better every year, many of those 6,500 or so entrants had no idea of how to turn out a college-level paper, Mr. Matheny said.
“They all have 3.8 GPAs, and 1300s on their SATs. They’re students who should be the cream of the crop,” he said. “But we find that they can’t write.”
Mr. Matheny also was pleased to see the University of Oregon policy center offer advice to students about close reading of college texts, a rare talent among many freshmen. “It’s not just rote memorization and regurgitation,” he noted.
If professors like Mr. Matheny hope the standards yield more prepared students, the College Board seeks to fashion an improved admissions test.
Mr. Camara called the Oregon researchers’ work “a building block,” and said their standards would be used to complement information the College Board gathers on its own about the college readiness of high school students.
The University of Oregon’s work—and the board’s own research—probably won’t be reflected in the SAT until March of 2005, Mr. Camara said, when the overhauled test will first be administered. The new test will feature three overall sections—writing, critical reading, and math—instead of the current two.
The College Board is also thinking of adding some “diagnostic” type of scoring, in addition to the standard scores of up to 800 points per section, to evaluate students’ college preparation, Mr. Camara said.
Bob Schaeffer, a spokesman for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass., watchdog organization, said the Oregon study’s goals dovetail with a larger movement to construct a smoother track between K-12 education and college. But he warned that any such project risked setting overly rigid guidelines for preparing for a diverse set of higher education institutions.
The breadth of those schools’ academic missions is noted in the report by Mr. Conley, who said the project’s goal is to give students, from all academic backgrounds, what they might not know.
“If you’re a high school teacher or a high school student who’s devoting a lot of time to college preparation, you might as well do things that can make a difference,” Mr. Conley said. “It’s an opportunity, not a threat.”
Coverage of research is underwritten in part by a grant from the Spencer Foundation.