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Study Finds College-Prep Courses in High School Leave Many Students Lagging

PUBLISHED: May 16, 2007 | By KAREN W. ARENSON | New York Times

Only a quarter of high school students who take a full set of college-preparatory courses — four years of English and three each of mathematics, science and social studies — are well prepared for college, according to a study of last year’s high school graduates released yesterday by ACT, the Iowa testing organization.

The study analyzed about 1.2 million students who took the ACT, one of the country’s major college admissions tests, along with the SAT, and graduated from high school last June. The study predicted whether students had a good chance of scoring a C or better in introductory college courses based on their test scores and the success rates of past test takers. Only 26 percent were ready for college-level work in all four core areas. Another 19 percent were not adequately prepared in any of them.

“While taking the right number of courses is certainly better than not, it is no longer enough,” the report said.

Cynthia B. Schmeiser, president and chief operating officer of the ACT Education Division, said she was stunned by the low level of accomplishment for students who had taken the core curriculum, which was recommended 24 years ago in “A Nation at Risk,” a federal Department of Education commission report that prompted widespread efforts to improve American education.

“What’s shocking about this, is that since ‘A Nation at Risk,’ we have been encouraging students to take this core curriculum with the unspoken promise that when they do, they will be college ready,” she said. “What we have found now, is that when they do, only one in four is ready for college-level work.”

ACT said 54 percent of last year’s graduates who took the ACT exam said they had taken at least the core curriculum. Those who did not fared even less well; only 14 percent were judged ready for college work in all four areas, while 36 percent were not prepared in any.

Yesterday’s report, “Rigor at Risk: Reaffirming Quality in the High School Core Curriculum,” is a sign of growing attention to secondary education after decades of emphasis on elementary and middle schools.

In 1999, Clifford Adelman, then a researcher at the federal Education Department, found that the strength of high school work was the most important factor in determining college success, more than the socioeconomic status of a student’s family.

The new report, which cites Mr. Adelman’s research, makes the case that many high school courses are not providing the necessary quality that he described.

“Course titles don’t matter nearly as much as what is taught and how it is taught,” said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a Washington-based organization that works with states on academic standards. “There is tremendous variation in what is taught in a course called Biology or Algebra 2.”

Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, another Washington group that advocates setting standards, said she finds many schools not offering challenging work.

“When you look at the assignments these kids get, it is just appalling,” she said. “A course may be labeled college-preparatory English. But if the kids get more than three-paragraph-long assignments, it is unusual. Or they’ll be asked to color a poster. We say, ‘How about doing analysis?’ and they look at us like we are demented.”

Other researchers have also found problems with high school rigor. A study released last year by the National Center for Educational Accountability in Austin, Tex., for example, found that a majority of low-income students who received credit for a college-preparatory curriculum in Texas needed remediation when they got to college.

Chrys Dougherty, the center’s research director, said the ACT report showed that the problems found in Texas were widespread, and that “many high school students are not learning the content implied by the titles of the courses in which they are enrolled.”

The ACT report also found that students who took more courses than the minimum core performed better on their exams and had a higher chance of doing well in college. Even then, however, college readiness was not assured.

But the report said high school students should not have to take more advanced courses to be well prepared after graduation. A rigorous set of core courses should achieve that, they said.

With so many high school students not fully prepared for college-level work, some critics say that the continuing push to expand the Advanced Placement Program, which offers college-level work to high school students, is misguided.

In 2000, Education Secretary Richard W. Riley announced a goal of having every school in the nation add an Advanced Placement course each year for the next decade. Even before that, the program was mushrooming, with the number of exams given nearly doubling since 2000. But it is questionable whether increased access to Advanced Placement courses has expanded college readiness, especially among low-income students.

Last week, speaking at a National Science Foundation-sponsored conference on advanced high school coursework in science and mathematics, William Lichten, an emeritus physics professor at Yale, said that at many poorer urban high schools, the emphasis on Advanced Placement courses puts “the cart of college-level courses before the horse of college preparation.”

He said that last year, for example, most of Philadelphia’s nonselective high schools did not have a single student who achieved a passing grade on any Advanced Placement exam.

For such students, he said, college preparation would be a more sensible approach than college imitation.

Tamar Lewin contributed reporting.

Red Alert!
Let's Opt Out of the April 2014 NYS Tests

Parents can refuse to allow their child to take the State high stakes tests. Hand in this letter to your principal [other formats: .pdf .odt .doc]. En Español: [otros formatos: .pdf .odt .doc] Send your child to school and ask that an alternative activity be planned for him/her during the 6 days of testing.

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