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Report Suggests Policies to Address College-Readiness Gap

Too often, high school grads just aren't academically prepared for college. The readiness gap is not only costly to students, families, institutions, and taxpayers, it is also a tremendous obstacle to increasing the nation's college-attainment levels.

Beyond the Rhetoric: Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy
, a special report just released by the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education and the Southern Regional Education Board, addresses the state policy dimensions of college readiness and offers recommendations to governors, legislators, and state education leaders.

"Increasingly, it appears that states or postsecondary institutions may be enrolling students under false pretenses," the report says. "Even those students who have done everything they were told to do to prepare for college find, often after they arrive, that their new institution has deemed them unprepared. Their high school diploma, college-preparatory curriculum, and high school exit-examination scores did not ensure college readiness."

Not surprisingly, the readiness gap is nominal in the most selective universities because their admissions criteria screen out most students who are underprepared, the report found. But the gap is huge at two-year and less selective four-year institutions, which serve between 80 percent and 90 percent of undergraduates in public institutions.

In two-year colleges, about 75 percent need remedial work in English, mathematics, or both. At other four-year institutions (often the state colleges), the report finds about half of incoming freshmen are underprepared for college.

Students are not ready because there is a disparity between what skills and knowledge they get in high school vs. what colleges expect. There is a patchwork of standards, and many states lack the political will to set high school exit exams at higher levels, the report says. Even college-prep curriculum often leaves many students unprepared for college because the P-12 and secondary expectations are disconnected. Time spent in a course does not guarantee students master the knowledge. Adding to the problem is that schools and teachers are not accountable for teaching to college-readiness standards, and colleges are not accountable for degree completion.

So, here's the proposed fix, according to the report:

1. College-readiness standards must be formally adopted by P-12 and postsecondary education.

2. High school assessments must measure progress on the specific state-adopted standards.

3. Public school curriculum should reflect the specific statewide readiness standards.

4. Teacher development should address the effective teaching of college-readiness standards.

5. Placement decisions by colleges and universities must use the adopted readiness standards.

6. State accountability systems must create incentives across P-16 for college readiness and completion.

It will be interesting to see how this meshes with the other efforts under way to improve college readiness, such as the NAEP commission created this spring by the National Assessment Governing Board and led by former Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove.

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