Monday, April 13, 2015

College Ready, My Butt

There are some parts of the ed reform debates that have repeated so many times, we almost forget that they don't actually make sense.

For instance, the beloved mantra "college and career ready."

What the heck does that even mean?

David Conley, Ph.D, of the Education Policy Improvement Center, has presented on this many times-- he has a set of slides over at the CCSSO website-- and he offers this definition:

The level of preparation a student needs in order to enroll and succeed-- without remediation-- in a credit-bearing course at a postsecondary institution that offers a baccalaureate degree or transfer to a baccalaureate program, or in a high-quality certificate program that enables students to enter a career pathway with potential future advancement.

In case you're wondering, he goes on to define "succeed" as basically "pass the course well enough to continue to the next course or complete the program." So, the Peter Principle is not invoked, I guess.

Note that the "career" portion of readiness doesn't include anything that you can do with a high school diploma. He has also disqualified any job that doesn't allow for future advancement, which is unfortunate since that rules out teaching as an actual career. Go figure.

But even as a measure of college readiness, this is an unhelpful mess. "Enroll and succeed in a credit-bearing course." Any course? As long as I can pass any one entry level course, I'm college ready? If I'm ready to take a music theory course, am I college-ready? And if so, why isn't any instrument in place to mark me college ready? And if not, then why not? Because it would seem that a student is only college ready if she scores well on a math and ELA test, but lots of people go on to college for other things. Is a brilliant young musician or scientist or historian or welder who can't pass a Big Standardized Math test not ready for college, even if they won't take a single math class once they get there?

And really-- which college? Because I'm pretty sure that college ready for the University of Southern North Dakota at Hoople looks a great deal different from college ready for Harvard. For that matter, I'm pretty sure that college ready for Harvard looks a lot different from college ready for the Tulsa Welding School.

The whole complex of questions is further confused by frequent conflation of "college ready," "on grade level," and "scoring proficient." These three ideas are often discussed as if they are interchangeable, but they are not.

We're also ignoring all the non-academic issues. Every year, students slink home from college carrying failing grades that are not the result of any academic, intellectual, or skill issues, but instead resulting from a failure to master their own Hey I'm At College independence. There is no standardized test for self-discipline and responsibility.

We especially have no clue what college readiness looks like on the elementary level. You can see where we're headed-- we'll find a correlation between third grade reading scores and college success, but we'll call it causation rather than look for the common cause of both (spoiler alert: it's wealth).

We'll continue to pretend that out of the hundreds of factors that prepare a student for college, the only one that counts is the test score. There are a hundred things to check before you go skydiving, but the reformster way is to say, "Well, you've got a handle thing to pull and shoes on your feet, so everything's great" without ever checking to see if there's even a parachute on your back before they shove you out of the plane.

In fact, we have no clear, complete, scientifically supported picture of what a college ready student looks like, nor any proven way to measure the complex of qualities (that we still can't name and quantify). Standardized test scores are not a proxy, not even a bad one. "Sorry, honey. I couldn't find any ingredients to make you a birthday cake, so I pan fried some pillow stuffing in some engine oil, instead."

Colleges, who have more incentive than anyone to figure out the magic secret of what college ready looks like, still have only moderate success. After all-- all those not-ready students who supposedly need super-remediation?-- the college accepted those students in the first place! Every student who flunks out is a student that the college accepted in the first place! How can that be? Don't we know exactly how to tell that a student is ready for college??

The answer, of course, is no, no, we don't. So instead we demand that teachers coach students to run faster, even though we can't find the track and aren't sure exactly where the finish line is. But run faster anyway. And we'll check how well your shoes are tied regularly, because that's how we'll know whether you're on track to win or not.

Yes, at the root of Common Core and all this other reforminess is a quality we can't identify and don't know how to measure. Is it any wonder that the mansion built on this foundation of dust bunnies and dreams is not safe to live in.


  1. When I chaired the admissions and retention committee for a liberal arts college, we used an ACT product to measure baseline English and math skills. It was OK for limited purposes like assigning kids to developmental classes, but even there it had to be compared with other measures. High school graduation rank was a much better predictor of overall success in college. I used to say we could save money if we dropped the standardized tests and evaluated kids by U.S. Census data on family income and educational level by U.S. Census block and Zip Code.

    1. Peter Ellertson, I find that both depressing and probably true. Doesn't it represent an enormous waste of the country's talent? Every day I teach hoping to give my kids tools to do whatever they want, but what kids want is, I suspect, also a product of these factors, limiting their social/economic mobility.

  2. I'm appreciating the comment about career readiness. There's been tremendous loss of trades classes... and we still need trades! When every high school student must pass Algebra 2, there's a problem.

  3. Every kid should go to college - that will surely help the unemployment statistics.