Public Schools Failing to Prepare Students for Life After High School
Preparing students for college and careers is one of the biggest challenges facing American public high schools. Many studies have found that simply graduating from high school is not enough to be successful in college or the workplace. Even students with good grades and high test scores are often lacking the rigorous academic preparation required to do well in college, or be unconditionally admitted to a postsecondary institution: The U.S. Department of Education reports that one-third of the first-year class in 2007-2008 was required to take at least one remedial course. At public 2-year colleges, that number rises to 42 percent.
Each year, the not-for-profit education organization ACT evaluates college-readiness among ACT test takers. They measure 'college readiness' by looking at students' scores on four benchmarks - English, reading, math and science. ACT bases the minimum scores on the actual performance of successful college students, and determines 'readiness' based on a 50% chance of earning a B or better or a 75% chance of earning a C or better.
Because these students are choosing to take the ACT test, a college entrance exam, they should theoretically be prepared for first-year college coursework. However, only 23% of 2009 test-takers were ready to earn a C or higher in all four core subject areas at the college level. Although that's a 1% increase from 2008, the numbers are still pretty dismal. Fewer than one-quarter of college entrance exam takers are qualified for college-level coursework. And that's just looking at the fundamentals - most college-prep curricula recommend foreign language in addition to high-level courses in the core areas.
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The Expectation Gap
Education researchers have found that the misalignment of expectations between public high schools and public colleges and universities is partially to blame for the situation. High school students typically hold the reasonable belief that achieving a good GPA in the basic curriculum required to graduate should prepare them for college. Yet high school graduation requirements rarely even match up with college admissions requirements, let alone the academic skills necessary to succeed in higher education - or the workforce.
In an effort to gain insight into the problems plaguing college and career readiness in American public schools, McGraw-Hill Education (MGHE) surveyed high school guidance counselors and recent high school graduates who are either in the workforce or in their first or second year in college. Comparing the expectations of guidance counselors to the experiences of recent grads, the organization found a gap in their perceptions of postsecondary readiness.
Survey participants included 160 high school guidance counselors, 120 college freshmen and sophomores and 100 recent high school grads who are currently working.
From the McGraw-Hill Education Survey of High School Guidance Counselors, College Students and Employed, Recent Grads, May 2010, page 15.
Most guidance counselors see high school as a 'productive and transformative experience' - although they feel that many entering students are poorly prepared for high school, counselors indicate that most high school graduates are well prepared for the next phase in their lives. Although they spend most of their time with students in danger of not graduating from high school, they also typically spend a great deal of time with those who plan to go to college. Most guidance counselors define post-high-school success as going on to higher education, and tend to spend the least time working with students who are on track to graduate but plan to go directly into the workforce.
While first and second year college students do report feeling generally well-served by their high schools, they note that the lack of academic rigor left them less prepared for college academic standards, particularly in mathematics. Most of this group also expressed regret for not learning better time management skills and study habits in high school, and wished that they had been better informed about college financing and scholarships.
Employed recent grads also felt that they were well-prepared overall for the workforce, but about one in five identified at least one area in which they felt underprepared. Problem areas included academic skills, people skills and communication skills, and most felt they could have been better trained in professionalism. Most working recent grads also wished they had learned more about technology applications, in marked contrast to the high ratings guidance counselors gave their students for being tech savvy.
Guidance counselors were not, however, completely unaware of the challenges many students face in college preparation. Echoing college students' concerns about financial planning, most guidance counselors noted that students need to be better educated in personal financial management. And they also felt that students would be more prepared to succeed if state high school standards and assessments were better aligned with the demands of higher education and the 21st century workplace.