Thursday, March 14, 2019

Maybe We Should Talk About College Readiness Again

College and career ready. College and career ready. College and career ready.

How long have we been reading and listening to that magical phrase, quietly at first and now omnipresent as the euphemism of choice for people who no longer dare say "Common Core."

It is a hollow phrase, completely empty of meaning. It never, ever, comes with a list, description, or quantification of what "college ready" actually looks like. No mystery there-- we don't know.

But then, few education policy mavens have ever tried to figure out, really, what college ready means,. and mostly they weren't even tryin. Instead, the phrase has been employed to give weight to the Big Standardized Test. "Students didn't score as well on the BS Test as we wanted them to," is not terribly compelling-- but run around hollering, "OMGZ! 63% of our students are not ready for college!!" and you can draw a crowd and get some money moving around in support of whatever test-driven idea you're selling this week.

But "scored higher than the cut score on the PARCC" is not the same as "college ready." How could any single measure tell us that? What single measure would tell us that one student is ready to attend as pre-law at Yale and another student is ready to attend Julliard to study music and another student is ready to attend East South Dakota Community College to get a history teaching certificate and another student is working on her welding certifications. What one instrument could possibly measure the readiness of students for an infinite variety of Next Steps?

But reformsters keep telling us that test scores measure college readiness, even as we all know that test scores closely correlate to family socio-economic background, that tests mostly measure how much money--


Oh, okay.

Perhaps I've been too hard on the BS Test. Perhaps it is giving us the best measure of one quality that does indicate college readiness-- your parents' bank account.

It took about five minutes for people to recognize that the great Aunt Becky college bribery scandal was not so much a wild outlier as simply an extreme version of what already happens. SAT and ACT scores padded by hugely expensive test coaches. Legacy entries.  Generous donations to the university. George W. Bush. Jared Kushner.

Look, we have very little idea what makes a student ready for college. We know the larger outlines. A decent command of a body knowledge in her chosen field. Enough maturity to self-regulate (as I told my students for years, most of my former students who flunked out did so not because of academic issues, but because the freedom to drink till 2 AM, sleep till 2 PM, skip half the classes and half the assignments was too much for them-- though we all know privileged folks who did all that in college and still grabbed a diploma). Some half-decent writing skills. Actual interest in learning more stuff. Enough money to be able to get through. All of that, more or less, matters. And enough money and privilege can substitute for any or all of those qualities. And the Big Standardized Test measures none of them.

There is overlap between the Cult of the Test and Credentialists. Credentialists believe in the Piece of Paper. You go to college to get your Big Boy Credentials, so it stands to reason that you show readiness by getting a High School Credential, and they didn't think a high school held up for that job, so let's invent a new high school credential. The problem of Credentialism is, of course, that you come to value the Piece of Paper (or, in their dreams, the digital micro-credential) that you stop thinking about what the Piece of Paper is supposed to represent. It stops being a symbol for the thing, and becomes thing itself. And if the point is to get a credential, a Piece of Paper-- well, there are lots of ways to do that, including having Mom and Dad buy one for you.

After all, a framed diploma hangs just as well on the wall of someone who actually learned something as it does on the wall of an uneducated credentialed dope. You can always pretend that your credentials mean whatever you want them to mean.

We need to stop pretending. We need to stop pretending that all colleges operate as full-time meritocracies. We need to stop pretending that college disrupts our socio-economic class structure, when mostly it just reinforces it (and while we're at it, we can stop pretending that Affirmative Action is somehow disrupting the imaginary meritocracy). We need to stop pretending that we know what "college ready" means, and we REALLY need to stop pretending that we know how to measure it.

We need to stop using the phrase "college and career ready" as if we're talking anything except the score on a single multiple-choice narrow-focus standardized test.


  1. Remember the horrible thing Arne Duncan said? “We should be able to look every second grader in the eye & say, 'You're on track, you're going to be able to go to a good college, or you're not"

  2. "We need to stop pretending that college disrupts our socio-economic class structure, when mostly it just reinforces it."

    YES - a thousand times over. In fact, college has become the means by which the aristocracy identify themselves.

    The most interesting part of this story is what it tells us about how college is regarded. These people cheating were already rich; they weren't trying to help their kids to shining and lucrative careers. They were buying *cachet* - they wanted to join the aristocracy. And the way to do that is to go to Yale, or Princeton, or somewhere - so long as it is exclusive.

    Ironically, in the UK, where they already have an aristocracy, Cambridge and Oxford don't have that kind of status. They may take in a disproportionate number of well-off students, but an Oxbridge degree isn't where the upper classes are minted.

  3. usual you are spot on!