Tests Reveal Students Unprepared for College

Published February 1, 2004

The advent of high-stakes testing is revealing more than just information on what American high school students know and are capable of doing; it is also revealing a significant shortfall between that assessment of actual skills and what schools have been telling students about their achievement and ability.

For some students, the failure to pass a high school exit exam is the first warning signal they may be sorely unprepared for the demands of college. A Massachusetts study indicates most students use the signal as a wake-up call to focus their efforts on bringing their skills up to the required level.

The study was carried out by the Mass Insight Education and Research Institute and the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute, with funding from the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.

The researchers found most of the 32 percent of students in Boston, Springfield, and Worcester who failed the state’s Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) exam on their first try–in 10th grade–were more than a little surprised: Almost 90 percent of them had a C average or better at the time.

Fortunately, as described in “Seizing the Day: Massachusetts At-Risk High School Students Speak Out on Their Experiences at the Front Lines of Education Reform,” the early warning motivated most of those students to take advantage of available “targeted, often individualized, remedial academic assistance,” doubling the number of students taking advantage of such extra help from the previous year.

By their senior year, 94 percent of these students from the class of 2003–the first required to pass the MCAS to graduate–received a diploma. The study found 82 percent of students who need extra help are now taking steps to get it; juniors are committing earlier to passing MCAS; and at-risk students are putting more effort into their school work because of MCAS.

“The reality of high stakes for high school students has led to increased effort and improved student behavior,” the researchers concluded.

But the increased effort and success may occur almost in spite of the students’ teachers, who, in addition to inflating grades, are sending mixed signals to the students about the test. Seventy-one percent of the students surveyed perceived negative attitudes towards the MCAS on the part of their teachers, even while 71 percent said their teachers helped push them towards remediation programs.

This disconnect between what high schools expect and will accept from their students, and what those students will actually need to succeed in college, poses a nationwide problem that seems to be worsening. It is the students who suffer most from this disconnect.

Losing Hope

For example, in Georgia, 40 percent of high school graduates who receive that state’s Hope Scholarship are losing it after about a year because they can’t keep up their good GPAs in college.

In Nevada, students who graduate with at least a B average can access a $10,000 college scholarship, but nearly one-third of those who do find they have to take remedial courses once they arrive on campus. According to a recent analysis by the Nevada Policy Research Institute, 10,000 of the state’s high school graduates were enrolled in remedial courses last year, and “in too many cases, they needed help with knowledge and skills that should have been learned in the third or fourth grade.”

A recent report from the National Center for Education Statistics found the number of students taking at least one remedial course upon reaching college has risen to 35 percent from 28 percent five years ago. At the same time, the percentage of college-bound students carrying an A average has grown from 28 percent 15 years ago to 42 percent now, according to the College Board.

Grade inflation is an obvious culprit, but students taking easier courses–sometimes because their schools do not offer anything more rigorous–may also be a factor. And in at least one city, a compounding, troubling factor has to do with principals improperly changing student grades from what their teachers submit.

Whatever the causes, American public high schools are clearly not adequately preparing students for later success in college. As the Manhattan Institute reported in the fall, only 32 percent of 18-year-olds in U.S. public high schools possess the minimum qualifications needed to attend a four-year college; for African-American students, the percentage of college-ready students falls to 20, while only 16 percent of Hispanic students are at least minimally prepared.

Kelly Amis Stewart is an education consultant and coauthor of Making it Count: A Guide to High-Impact Education Philanthropy with Chester E. Finn, Jr. Her email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The October 2003 report from the Mass Insight Education and Research Institute and the University of Massachusetts Donahue Institute, “Seizing the Day: Massachusetts At-Risk High School Students Speak Out on Their Experiences at the Front Lines of Education Reform,” is available at http://www.massinsight.org/pdf/Seizing%20the%20Day%20Report.pdf.

The Fall 2003 report from the Nevada Policy Research Institute, “Wasting Time and Money: Why So Many Nevada Students Are Not Ready for College,” by J.E. Stone, William L. Brown, and Richard P. Phelps, is available at http://www.npri.org/mgraphs/remedial1.pdf.

The November 2003 report from the National Center for Education Statistics, “Remedial Education at Degree-Granting Postsecondary Institutions in Fall 2000,” by Basmat Parsad, Laurie Lewis, and Bernard Greene, is available at http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2004/2004010.pdf.

The December 9, 2003 news release from the District of Columbia Public Schools, “DC Public Schools to Implement Recommendations from Review of Senior High School Student Records Reports,” is available at http://www.k12.dc.us/dcps/dcpsnews/newsrelease/News%20Release%20Dec%209.pdf.

A first-of-its-kind report on how well state standards match the knowledge and skills required for college success is available from the University of Oregon, “Mixed Messages: What State High School Tests Communicate About Student Readiness for College,” by David Conley. A news release and the report are available at http://cepr.uoregon.edu/MixedMessages/index.asp.