We Must Better Prepare Students For College

June 30th, 2014

By David P. Driscoll, Chair National Assessment Governing Board  for Education Week

As high school graduation ceremonies wind down across the country, the nation’s foremost yardstick for measuring progress in student achievement is telling us that we are coming up short in preparing most of our high school seniors for the academic life they will face after receiving their diplomas.

Only 39 percent of 12th grade students have the mathematics skills and 38 percent the reading skills needed for entry-level college courses, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress,  or NAEP. These results, released last month, are the first to link student performance on NAEP with academic preparedness for college.

The board that oversees NAEP, which I’ve chaired since October 2009, wanted to explore how preparedness could be measured. This was more than 10 years before “college and career ready” became a permanent part of our country’s vernacular.

NAEP is the United States’ only source of nationally representative 12th grade student-achievement data. More than 30 research studies have been conducted since 2008, and we intend to see to it that more research is done in the years ahead.

In early May, NAEP released new information on academic preparedness as well as the 12th grade NAEP results on reading and mathematics. The numbers show that 2013 performance in both of these critical subjects was unchanged from the last assessment year of 2009—in other words, there was academic stagnation.

There is a tendency for many of us to hear testing results, express dismay at lackluster reports, and then quickly move on to other matters. But what remains by our inaction?

For some time now, employers in many occupational areas have expressed concern that there are not enough qualified or educated workers filling positions, especially those requiring specialized skills. Other countries are making educational and economic progress at a faster rate than the United States. With technology rapidly changing and the marketplace becoming more global, it is imperative that we  prepare our children to be full, active citizens in a competitive 21st-century landscape.

The bridge from high school to postsecondary education is creaking loudly. A January 2013 study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that 20 percent of undergraduate students in four-year institutions of higher education had to take remedial classes. And according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the annual cost of remediation to states, schools, and students is close to $7 billion.

There is an opportunity based on the research and student results to not just bemoan what we see, but also to take affirmative steps to make a difference. This is not a problem just for some of us. It’s going  to take educators, policymakers, students, parents, business leaders, and even the general public working together at all levels—elementary, middle and high school, and college.

We need principals, superintendents, and school board members to ensure more of our students have equitable access to rigorous classes that can truly challenge them, dedicated teachers and counselors to impart academic skills, students and parents working together so that kids are disciplined learners, employers communicating skill gaps and educational needs both to colleges and K-12 schools, and the general public becoming alarmed and putting pressure on the system.

We can no longer ignore college freshmen being overwhelmed by their introductory courses, or businesses constantly complaining at their monthly chamber of commerce meetings that they cannot find qualified workers to fill slots in their plants and firms.

When future NAEP results on academic preparedness—and reading and math, for that matter—are released, we must see improvement. If we do, it will mean that we have all gotten involved and taken action.

David P. Driscoll chairs the National Assessment Governing Board, which is based in Washington. He also served as the commissioner of education in Massachusetts from 1998 to 2007. He is a former secondary school mathematics teacher and served as the superintendent of schools in Melrose, Mass. He serves on the boards of Teach Plus and the U.S. Education Delivery Institute, among other organizations, and he chairs the Thomas B. Fordham Institute board of trustees.

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