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Report shows high school graduates enter college unprepared


A new report details methods to solve the disparity between high school exit exams and college entrance requirements.

High school students should be exposed to college-level courses early on, and they should learn in technology-rich classrooms that redesign the learning process to emphasize problem-solving, critical thinking, and other higher-order skills, in order to help close the achievement gap between high school and college, according to a new report that highlights high school graduates’ lack of preparedness for the rigors of a college education.

Entitled “Closing the Gap between High School and College,” the report comes from the Blackboard Institute, an independent research organization within the ed-tech company Blackboard Inc. While it’s obvious that Blackboard has a financial stake in advocating for more use of technology in the classroom, the report was based on interviews with education experts from K-12 schools, community colleges, research institutions, and nonprofit organizations.

The report says that of the students who enter college, nearly a third drop out after their first year—and 50 percent never graduate. Many students enter college not prepared for higher education, the report notes; at community colleges, nearly a million students reportedly take remedial courses each year at a cost of $1.4 billion.

The report details new practices to help improve college success and close the achievement gap from high school to college, including training teachers to optimize students’ college success, assessing college preparation early and often, and adopting national standards that are more aligned with collegiate entry requirements.

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“For a long time, high schools really weren’t designed with the expectation that all students would need to be ready for some sort of postsecondary education, and so the curriculum and standards weren’t designed that way,” said Joel Vargas, vice president of Jobs for the Future and leader of the “High School Through College” team.

“I think what you’ve seen is increasing realization that the standards between high school and college are not aligned,” he said.

In creating the report, the Blackboard Institute interviewed 24 education experts to determine why there is a disparity between high school exit and college entrance requirements, which leads to many high school students not continuing on to higher education, achieving a low rate of college success, or dropping out later.

Chris Dede, Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard University, said they are several reasons for the gap in college readiness.

“Some of it is the disconnect between what high schools prepare students for and what colleges want. Some of it is problems getting good advising and career counseling at the high school level, [and] some of it is [that] being prepared for the high-stakes tests is not the same as being prepared to do well in college,” he said.

Lynne Muller, coordinator of the Office of School Counseling for Baltimore County Public Schools, said she believes there must be more interface between high schools and postsecondary institutions to ensure students’ college success.

“There hasn’t been a lot of vertical teaming between high schools and colleges. … What colleges want for requirements from kids varies from college to college, university to university, and program to program, so it would be very hard for high schools to have a target that they’re trying to reach for college readiness,” she said.

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Dede said that students are ill-prepared for the independence that comes with college schooling.

“You’re expected to show some degree of initiative and some degree of self-directed learning, and so what colleges report is a mixture of missing skill and then a sort of attitude and habits of the mind that have not been built up to the degree that they need to be,” said Dede.

He said high schools do students a disservice by “holding their hands” throughout their tenure.

“High schools tend to treat their students like they’re in first grade, and students respond by behaving down to that level,” Dede said.

He continued: “I think the best way to prepare students for college is to make high school more like college. In other words, to give students increasing amounts of independence.”

Vargas and Muller agreed.

“[Students] often don’t have a lot of exposure to the types of study habits, study skills, and ways of thinking that they’re going to need to be successful as college students,” Vargas said.

“When [students] go to college, no one’s going to check on their homework [and] make sure it has been done. … You’re expected to do the work, no one’s going to check on your work, so there’s those kind of cultural issues that are very different,” said Muller.

For more on college readiness, see these recent stories:

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All agree that exposing students to a more challenging course load earlier on would help in the preparation process.

“The more rigor kids are exposed to, the better they are going to handle the rigors of college,” said Muller.

She believes that students who take Advanced Placement (AP) or International Baccalaureate (IB) programs are better prepared.

“Those are college classes taught in high school, so the students will learn about what kind of work is expected in college. … Any time a student can actually participate in something that’s taught at a college level, they get to understand the expectation of college work,” Muller said.

Dede disagreed, pointing out that although IB programs teach project-based learning and have a broad way to measure success, students in AP courses are generally just taught how to do well on the corresponding AP tests.

“AP students are going to do better than the general population by definition, because only students who are doing reasonably well in school to begin with end up in AP courses … but I don’t know that AP really helps them to prepare for college,” Dede said.

Vargas encouraged dual enrollment instead, where high school students can take actual college classes and receive both high school and college credit for them.

“Dual enrollees actually seem to have the effect of having students have higher GPAs through the first two years of college and accumulating more credits, which is a good sign of their eventual completion of college,” Vargas said.

Dede isn’t sure that developing national standards is the right road to take. He said he believes focusing on a set of standards might actually be counterproductive.

“There’s a kind of social promotion that goes on where students who really struggle with reading and math and writing are just kicked up to the next level, and those are really the much deeper and harder systemic problems that if we really want to tackle this we’re going to have to confront,” said Dede.

For more on college readiness, see these recent stories:

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Vargas disagreed.

“I think what you’re seeing is increasing realization that the standards between high school and college are not aligned. … It’s certainly important for college-ready standards to be implemented,” Vargas said.

All agreed, however, that there needs to be some form of change.

“Vertical teaming between colleges, universities, and high schools definitely needs to be done, so we can backwards map and teach it; not just teach it in 12th grade, but build up to it from 7th grade,” Muller said. “We need colleges and universities to continue to participate in the kind of programs … like parallel enrollment, so [students] understand the culture of the college.”

“The way you prepare somebody for something is mimic something, and it involves rethinking the nature of what a really good high school looks like,” Dede said.

“We want all students prepared to go to college. They can choose not to go if they want to, but we want them all prepared,” said Muller.

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