Needed: Matriculation exams tailored to each state’s higher education system

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Several decades ago, self-appointed education reformers decided that more low-performing students should go to college and graduate than now do. They concluded that the quickest route to their goal was to lower the admissions requirements at public colleges. But they also realized that sending an even larger number of low-performing students on to any form of post-secondary education would increase the number now needing remediation in their freshman year.

So they came up with what they thought was a clever idea. Call the K-12 standards “college readiness” standards so that those who pass a test based on these so-named standards in grade 11 get credit for courses they take in their college freshman year. No remediation. After all, they have been declared “college ready.”

The first obstacle the reformers had to address is the likelihood that most freshman college courses would be too hard for them. Indeed, that was why remedial courses were increasing in number, especially in community colleges, which tended to have open admissions policies but also used placement tests for assigning students to appropriate freshman mathematics and reading courses. To address that obstacle, the reformers had to figure out how to lower the academic level of the freshman courses, especially in mathematics, so that these courses would be “accessible” to low-performing students deemed “college ready” on a grade 11 test.

So the reformers then came up with what they thought was another clever idea: demand “alignment” of freshman (and maybe sophomore) courses in public colleges (both four-year and two-year) with the standards on which the college readiness grade 11 test was based. The reformers clearly didn’t want alignment of the standards addressed by the grade 11 “college readiness” test with the content and difficulty level of freshman mathematics and other freshman courses. That direction for alignment would defeat their purpose; these courses would then be inaccessible to the low-performing students judged to be “college ready” by a “college readiness” test in grade 11.

[quote align=”right” color=”#999999″]According to a yet-to come regulation, employers will not be able to develop and use tests of their own making to find out what level of mathematics or science knowledge job applicants with college degrees have, how well they can read and write, or what they know about anything when they apply for an entry-level position.[/quote]

This phase of the effort to get more low-performing students into college and, ultimately, through college and out with a college degree is now moving full-steam ahead.  Encouraged by Gates Foundation money, among other forms of persuasion, public colleges are now turning freshman mathematics courses into credit-bearing courses called Intermediate Algebra II or beginning Statistics so that a low-performing but “college ready” student can successfully enroll in them.

Why should anyone protest these initiatives? They get more low-performing students into college and out with a college diploma in record time. All the U.S. Department of Education needs to do to prevent a reversion to higher standards is to threaten colleges with a loss of funding for having high attrition rates or proportionately unequal graduation rates for different demographic groups in a state.

Moreover, the state no longer has to fund remedial coursework at the post-secondary level. By definition, most of it cannot exist. (Some remedial coursework will continue to exist for immigrant adults or other adults who never had the opportunity to be declared “college ready” in an American high school, although the GED test will likely become that opportunity.)

The only other obstacle is whether the low-performing student deemed “college ready” will be accepted by the four-year college they may choose to transfer to after enrolling in a two-year community college. Many states have already solved this problem. “Articulation” agreements between community or two-year colleges and four-year public colleges in a state allow students to transfer their community college credits to the four-year public colleges. This means that a freshman course in, say, Intermediate Algebra in a community college may legally satisfy the mathematics requirement in a four-year public college.

The results of these initiatives may dramatically narrow if not close demographic gaps. According to a yet-to come regulation, employers will not be able to develop and use tests of their own making to find out what level of mathematics or science knowledge job applicants with college degrees have, how well they can read and write, or what they know about anything when they apply for an entry-level position. All they will be allowed to use in order to judge a prospective employee’s academic skills and knowledge will be the college diploma.

It isn’t even clear whether graduate programs will be able to insist on authentic requirements and tests so that only academically qualified students are admitted. But it is clear that taxpayers will be paying increasingly larger bills for more Pell-type student loans or grants to enable large numbers of low-performing students to go to and complete college.

What are some alternatives to such costly and self-defeating ideas? After all, it will be clear to the recipients of such low expectations that they don’t know much and can’t read or write well.

1. Alternative high school curricula for students to choose among. Many students would be interested in acquiring a set of occupational skills for a trade they find interesting. Students who don’t like to read and write don’t usually want to go to college. They need a course of studies that interests them at the same time that they take required coursework in basic subjects (e.g., U.S. history and English), so that they are employable when they graduate from high school and capable of performing basic civic responsibilities.

2. A radical restructuring and reform of our teacher and administrator training programs to ensure that our schools are staffed by teachers and administrators with stronger academic credentials. Closing demographic gaps should not trump raising the floor for all children. All we know from education research is that the effective teacher is one who knows the subject matter he/she teaches.