TOPICS > Education

Students Not Ready for College

August 30, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: The newest SAT scores released today showed some small improvement. The average SAT math score jumped two points this year. The number of test takers reached an all-time high, and a record 38 percent of the students taking the test were minorities. But average test scores overall were little changed as verbal results were flat.

Earlier this months an annual report by the nation’s other leading college admission test, the ACT, found half of high school graduates are unprepared to succeed academically in college. Is the college class of 2009 ready for college?

For that we turn to Freeman Hrabowski, president of the University of Maryland – Baltimore County; Patricia McGuire, president of Trinity University; and Sandy Shugart, president of Valencia Community College.

Well, guests, the people who are taking these tests are all your customers now, the freshmen of America. What, President Hrabowski do these results tell you?

FREEMAN HRABOWSKI: Well, the results tell us several very encouraging things; first there are more people taking the test and that’s good. More people from all types of backgrounds, about a third of those students are first-generation college. That’s very encouraging.

The most discouraging part, though, is that as you said, many of these students are not prepared for college. The ACT study showed that well over half are not ready for college algebra. What we see is that large numbers of students have not had the rigor of coursework that we would need to do well in college.

In fact, the encouraging part is that more and more minorities and others are taking pre-Calculus and AP courses, but the vast majority are not, and that’s the discouraging news. They are not with the rigorous course work; they are not with the reading skills. And so while they’ll are ready for college in terms of their attitude, they are not academically prepared in large numbers.

RAY SUAREZ: President McGuire do you agree?

PATRICIA McGUIRE: Absolutely. I think President Hrabowski touched on some very important points. One of the things that’s important to notice in the college board data is the fact that while more students, more minority students are taking the SAT test, and we always want to celebrate the fact that the scores go up, even if by only two points, which is somewhat slim, the fact of the matter is when you drill down into the data and look at the test scores for African-American and Hispanic students in particular, those scores are not advancing very much, and they are well below the stated national averages.

You know, today the poverty report also came out and I’m struck by the fact that 12 percent of Americans remain in very firm poverty. And that is also tied to this problem of college preparation among high school students in our country because the fact of the matter is even as some high school students are better and better prepared and have more and more opportunity in great schools, millions of other high school students are left behind in urban schools that continue to fail them. And I think that should be shown in the score reports from both the SATs and the ACTs.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, President Shugart, you heard President McGuire talk about the different profile for minority students. Those are a lot of your customers at a junior college in central Florida, right?

SANDY SHUGART: Yes. About half of our students are students of color. And -

RAY SUAREZ: I’m sorry, go ahead.

SANDY SHUGART: Well, we do notice a substantial difference in performance and one that there’s no good reason to see. These students are as capable as any other of learning, but their preparation has been slim and often they come to us needing remediation before we can admit them to college level work. There are serious gaps I think to be closed between the performance of minority students and those of majority students.

RAY SUAREZ: How much of the time, the instructional time in a school like yours is devoted to remediation?

SANDY SHUGART: Well, about 70 percent of the freshmen who come to us require some level of remediation, usually light, but sometimes quite heavy. Still it represents only about 10 percent of what we do. So it’s not the central mission of a community college. But it’s an important part of our mission to access.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, President McGuire, your school, Trinity, has made a decision on how to treat children who are coming out of high school not necessarily optimally prepared. What did you decide as a board?

PATRICIA McGUIRE: Well, approximately 45 percent of our students come from the District of Columbia and the surrounding region, and we know that many of these students are coming from schools that have a long history of being troubled and this is well-known. We work with the public schools and we are committed to helping Superintendent Janey try to improve the level of performance in elementary and secondary education in the district.

However, when students come into Trinity, they do need, we don’t call it remediation, we call it education because the fact of the matter is wherever the student starts, she needs to come up to the level that we would expect her to be able to perform that by the time she completes her college experience.

We have a program for freshmen in which those who need some extra assistance to get over the hump, if you will, are enrolled in a program that we call Future Focus, which really helps the students to focus on how to develop their writing skills, how to develop their study habits, how to develop the discipline they need in order to pay attention, focus and become successful college students.

We do find that the writing skills, the reading comprehension and computational skills need a lot of work. There’s nothing wrong with these students. As my colleague from Valencia just said, these are fine students. Their schools frequently have failed to prepare them for college level work, but in the right hands with great teachers like our great faculty at Trinity, they learn to blossom. And they quickly master the skills that they need to become successful sophomores and juniors at Trinity.

RAY SUAREZ: President Hrabowski, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County has made yet another and different decision, hasn’t it?

FREEMAN HRABOWSKI: Yes, we have. UMBC is an honors campus; we are focused on issues involving children and K through 12 and focusing on reading and math skills, but at the university we decided sometime ago to focus on high achieving students.

And the encouraging news in our country is that the top group of students of any race will be found to be taking many more rigorous courses and are well prepared. We are recruiting those students. And so the top black students on our campus, which is predominantly white, will be students with very high test scores and they do well, they still need support throughout the disciplines.

But the challenge we face is to look at what works with well with those students who have begun taking the right courses in high school — and there’s been an increase in every racial group in the percentage of students taking rigorous courses, AP courses.

But as President McGuire said, the fact is that the bottom groups of students, meaning academically those in the bottom half for the country in general, the bottom 70 percent for blacks, for example, will not have had the coursework.

Now, the key for us is this. For all of these students, if we’re going to talk about competing internationally, I think we can do a better job of raising standards for all of our students, including the high achieving students. But I think the American public needs to understand the complexity of the issue. The fact is that our children are not reading in their homes, they do very little homework.

The new report from the National Assessment of Education Progress Report makes it clear, most students do less than two hours, fewer than two hours of homework; they don’t read as much for fun. And so we need to think about a holistic approach to supporting K through 12 and to helping families know there’s a role they have to play in encouraging reading, writing and homework in the home.

RAY SUAREZ: So President Shugart, where do you start fixing the problem, what do you do? It’s kind of late to start once somebody is in their freshman year in college, isn’t it?

SANDY SHUGART: Well, we have great success, as a matter of fact, working with students who have come to us with one deficit or another. But I think you work up and down the line, and probably the most promising part of the curriculum for making improvements is the connection between high school and post-secondary education.

Really our high schools are loosely coupled to post-secondary world, and the engine that produces the curriculum and expectations for high schools is very different from the one that produces expectations and curriculum in colleges and universities. And they just have to be much more tightly linked. It’s very, very common.

RAY SUAREZ: Give me an example of that tight link. What does that mean? Does that mean making your expectations in a college setting more clear to kids who are already in high school?

SANDY SHUGART: And for that to be imprinted on the curriculum they experience in the high school. For example, vast numbers of high school seniors take no math at all. Math is like a foreign language. If you take a year off, you’re going to lose your vocabulary pretty quickly. So we could probably reduce the rate of remediation in math very dramatically just by requiring on-grade-level math in senior year for all students. It’s really about rigor. My colleagues are right on the mark. The students who engage in the rigorous curriculum all the way through their high school are ready for college. Those who take a path of less resistance often require additional help.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, President McGuire, you’ve endorsed the idea of spending the money. But is it money that you shouldn’t really have to spend? And is it expensive for a private institution like Trinity to set up these programs for people who haven’t been properly prepared for college?

PATRICIA McGUIRE: It is absolutely expensive, and for private colleges and universities everywhere it is something that we do because it’s the right thing to do as part of the work that we do as educators. You know one of the interesting things that’s happening in this country is that, particularly the smaller religiously affiliated private colleges and universities, are serving a remarkably lower income population than some of the flagship state institutions. And this is borne out in much data, especially those of us that historically were located in cities to serve immigrant populations.

Trinity historically served Irish Catholic immigrants in the Washington region and today we’re serving our city still with what I call the new immigrants, the Latino families, the African-American families who are having now the first generation coming into college.

But I want to answer the question you just posed in a slightly different way also, because I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t say we have to work the problem from both ends. One end is to focus on high school and students immediately coming out of high school. But we know that the most critical factor in a student’s academic success today is parental level of education.

And one of the things we also know today is that the majority of students in higher education or what we call nontraditional. There are an enormous number of parents coming into colleges and universities to learn alongside their children. It’s something we’ve done at Trinity. We created our program for adult working women 20 years ago. Today it’s co-educational in our school of professional studies.

And we have many models now where parents can learn alongside of their children who are coming right out of high school. We see a tremendous difference in families where we help, the mothers in particular as well as the fathers, achieve their college degrees. We see those kids getting their, their children getting into the pipeline and succeeding in much greater numbers. So we shouldn’t forget parental education and lifelong learning.

RAY SUAREZ: President Hrabowski, your colleagues have talked about working the problem up and down the line. If kindergarten to 12th grade reform efforts that are under way across the country actually start to work, how will you know? Will you be able to see it in your applications?

FREEMAN HRABOWSKI: You know, I work with a number of states on the achievement gap and work a great deal with the National Science Foundation, it’s very interesting. First of all, we have to make sure that we think at policy level about pre-k through 16 education — about ways of having universities thinking carefully with school systems and school boards about everything from teacher education, preparing teachers to work with children who come to school not ready to learn, finding ways to support parents in their efforts to work with their children.

There’s a need for much more of a strengthening of a continuum from the pre-k level all the way through the college education. We’ll know that we are making a difference when we see larger numbers of children, particularly poor white children and children of color, who can read well, who can think well and who can compute.

As a mathematician, I will tell you there’s no skill more important than critical reading and thinking. And yet we’re not seeing children learning those skills and so they can’t do the word problems. And so what I see happening is first of all that we as a country understand there’s the need for this will, for the public that would focus on working with the national agencies, the office of education, the different national agencies, and with school systems and universities to think about a coherent approach.

And the challenge is to have the resources and an understanding of the problem. Right now I think we’re still around the fringes. As I talk to teachers, as I listen to parents, we know that America’s children in the greatest numbers are not reading.

RAY SUAREZ: Presidents, thank you all.

PATRICIA McGUIRE: Thank you.

SANDY SHUGART: Thank you.