High Schools Set Up Community-College Students to Fail, Report Says

May 07, 2013

Community colleges' academic expectations are "shockingly low," but students still struggle to meet them, in part because high-school graduation standards are too lax in English and too rigid in mathematics, according to a study released on Tuesday by the National Center on Education and the Economy.

Students entering community colleges have poor reading and writing skills and a shaky grasp of advanced math concepts that most of them will never need, the study found.

The center, a nonprofit organization dedicated to college readiness, examined the math and English skills needed to succeed in first-year community-college courses. In a report on the study, the authors acknowledge that their findings are controversial, especially their conclusion that not all students need a second year of algebra.

A typical high-school math sequence includes geometry, a second year of algebra, precalculus, and calculus, the authors note. They say that less than 5 percent of American workers need calculus and that high schools should offer alternative pathways including options like statistics, data analysis, and applied geometry.

In math, students are rushed through middle-school courses without fully grasping the concepts in order to get to more-advanced material, the study concludes.

"It's kind of like saying the League of Nations is more important to study than the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence because it comes later," Phil Daro, co-chair of the study's mathematics panel, said on Tuesday during a daylong discussion of the findings.

What students need to succeed in entry-level college classes is middle-school math, especially arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions, and simple equations, the report says.

The authors insist that they aren't calling for weaker standards, but simply more flexibility, so that students who are interested in vocational fields can take applied math that would be more useful to them.

The entire sequence, from secondary education through college, needs to be better aligned, they say.

"You think of community colleges as Grade 13, and that kids go through a progression with each year building on the previous year," said Marc S. Tucker, president of the national center. "What I see is kids leaving the 12th grade, going to community college, and beginning back in middle school. That's not a progression. That's going backwards."

A Retreat to Tracking?

The study focused on community colleges because they offer a gateway to four-year colleges for a large and increasing proportion of students, and provide the bulk of vocational and technical education offered in the United States. About 45 percent of American college students are enrolled in such colleges.

The study was guided by panels of experts in the subject matter, and was overseen by an advisory committee that included leading psychometricians, cognitive scientists, and curriculum experts. The project was supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The authors selected seven diverse states and randomly chose a community college in each one, focusing on eight popular programs preparing students for careers and for transfer to four-year colleges. They examined textbooks, assigned work, tests, and grades.

The argument that high-school math requirements are too rigid has prompted lawmakers in some states to recommend making it easier for students to pursue vocational paths. In Texas, for instance, lawmakers are debating proposals that would allow some students to graduate without completing a second year of algebra.

The changes are supported by industry and trade groups that are having trouble finding enough skilled workers but are opposed by those who worry about a return to the days when low-income and minority students were routinely tracked into vocational careers. Loosening graduation requirements would mark a retreat, they argue, from the decades-long national push toward tougher graduation requirements at high schools.

Turning to English, the study found that instructors often assume that students can't understand their textbooks, even though they're written at an 11th- or 12th-grade level. They compensate by using videos, flash cards, and PowerPoint presentations to summarize the material.

Most introductory college classes demand little writing, and when it is required, "instructors tend to have very low expectations for grammatical accuracy, appropriate diction, clarity of expression, reasoning, and the ability to present a logical argument or offer evidence in support of claims."

Across the curriculum, "the default is short-form assignments that require neither breadth nor depth of knowledge," the report says. The exception was in English-composition classes, where students were typically challenged.

Raising the bar too quickly for college classes would be a mistake, according to the study, because so many students are unable to handle current course levels and end up in remedial classes.

Ill Prepared for College

Walter G. Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges, said the report underscores issues that are already being dealt with by the association's 21st-Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges, including the problem that "far too many students are coming to community colleges ill prepared to do college-level work, especially in foundational math and English."

The president of a nonprofit group that is working to raise academic standards said the report reinforces the importance of Common Core State Standards that have been approved by 45 states and the District of Columbia.

The revamped version of second-year algebra in those standards includes more emphasis on modeling and drawing inferences and conclusions from data—skills that are relevant to all students, said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve.

Scrapping the course requirement altogether could hurt low-income and minority students who would be more likely to opt out and thus be less prepared for college, he said. "We don't really want to set the expectations for high-school students at a level that reflects what community colleges currently demand," he added. "That's not setting the bar very high."