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Skills From High School Don't Match College Demands

Community colleges have low academic expectations for first-year students, many of whom are still not getting the right preparation in high school to match the demands of college, says a report released today by the National Center on Education and the Economy.

Unlike other studies that ask faculty members what they would like students to be able to do, researchers reviewed tests, assignments, student work, and teacher grading to analyze what is actually expected of incoming freshmen in the report, What Does it Mean to be College and Work Ready? by the Washington-based research organization.

NCEE researchers discovered that many new college students do not have a solid grasp of basic math concepts often taught in middle school. Rather than taking higher levels of math, such as Algebra 2 and calculus, the report says high school students are better off focusing on a mastery of the fundamentals of equations, ratios, and proportion.

The report notes that many community college career programs demand little or no use of math, and high school students are taking math courses they will likely never use. The current push in secondary curriculum is for students to complete geometry, Algebra 2, precalculus and calculus. "Fewer than five percent of American workers and even a smaller percentage of community college students will ever need to master the courses in this sequence," the report says.

Despite the gap in alignment between high school preparation and the reality of college, placement tests in community colleges are based on the assumption that all students should be proficient in the math-course sequence leading to calculus. "This is a very serious problem," the NCEE report says. "It is clear that many students are being denied entry to credit-bearing courses at our community colleges who are in fact prepared to do the mathematics that will be required of them in their applied programs."

The NCEE also found the reading and writing required of incoming college freshmen are not very complex or cognitively demanding. Again, there is a mismatch in preparation and expectations. College textbooks required a reading level of 11th or 12th grade, yet reading assigned in high school was often at lower reading levels, and students were not asked to read for in-depth subject-matter comprehension. To compensate in college, the report notes, professors rely on Power Point presentations and other, simpler ways to convey the information to students.

Very little writing is required of community college freshmen, and when it is, the bar is low for presenting a reasonable argument and grammar usage, the NCEE review reveals. Student competency in literature needs to be raised if students are going to succeed in college and work, the researchers write.

The logical conclusion might be for community colleges to raise their expectations and for high schools to step up the rigor, the NCEE notes, but that would not help today's large proportion of high school graduates who do not meet the criteria to enroll in credit-bearing college courses.

Researchers propose the priority should be to enable high school students to meet the current very low standards before the standards are ratcheted up. The Common Core State Standards will address some of the mismatch between skills demanded in college and work and current school curricula, the report points out. The standards are a promising step, but the NCEE cautions that implementation will be a "heavy lift" for schools.

The report is based on a two-year review from 2010-2012 of graded assignments from seven community colleges (urban, rural, and suburban) in seven states, with enrollments ranging from 3,000 to 30,000 students.


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