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Can we determine a universal definition of College Readiness?

July 28, 2012

If you have not had the chance to read the article in Education Week, Common Core Assessment Consortium Ponders Meaning of “College Readiness”, in July 18th edition, I highly recommend it as a piece that shows how absurd the task will be to develop a national assessment that is robust, meaningful, and universal based on Common Core Standards.  After reading this article, I have many more questions than answers.

  • What does it mean to graduate from high school being college ready?
  • Will a national assessment based on standards motivate students to enjoy and appreciate school?
  • Can a national assessment be a fair and reasonable way to assess an extremely diverse set of conditions underlying schools in the US?
  • What is the potential for national standards and a national exam to elevate education in the US and help our students become the creative problem solvers and innovators in the 21st Century?

The author, Catherine Gewertz, writes:

Both the collaboration and the tensions were on display here as K-12 and collegiate leaders from the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, on of the two federally funded state assessment consortia, met to discus a draft definition of college readiness in mathematics and English/language arts that would undergird the performance levels on its tests in 2014-2015.

She points out that the participants, 36 from K-12 and higher education, at this profession meeting could not come to consensus on the question of what it means to graduate from high school being college ready.  Doesn’t it seem strange that they could not agree on a profile for a college ready graduate?  We have been graduating high school seniors from around the country for the past 150+ years, many of whom have gone off to graduate from thousands of different colleges and complete successful careers in an enormous variety of professions.  And yet, 36 intelligent people cannot agree on what it means to graduate from high school being college ready?  Don’t we have a big problem at the leadership level?

The truth of the matter is that there is no single profile of a successful high school graduate that could be scripted for success at one of the thousands of diverse colleges across the US.  There are hundreds, maybe thousands of profiles.  Doesn’t a profile or definition of college readiness depend upon…

  • what high school the student graduates from;
  • what career path the student is interested in pursuing;
  • what goals the student has for his or her college path; and
  • what college the student attends.

If somehow we think that Common Core Standards and new national assessments based on the standards will help us define college readiness, I think we are being overly optimistic or quite naive.  So why are we so fixated on our national standards and the “perfect” high-stakes assessment that will be our crystal ball for predicting college readiness, especially when we know that high-performing countries like Finland do not worry about high-stakes testing as a precondition to moving from grade to grade.  (click here for article, Education Nation, on testing in Finland)

Below is my attempt to summarize what Catherine Gewertz reported as the guidelines for the conversation of the 36 educators at the PARCC conference.

 

Table: “College Readiness” as defined by PARCC test results for 11th and 3rd-8th graders

PARCC Test Levels (1-5) College Readiness Definition11th graders*

College Readiness Definition

3rd-8th graders

1 Very likely to succeed Very well prepared to engage successfully in further study
2 Likely to succeed Well prepared
3 May succeed May need some targeted support
4 Unlikely to succeed Will likely need targeted support
5 Very unlikely to succeed Will likely need intensive intervention
*Level 4 would be aligned with proficient level in the NAEP test so that 75% of students who reached proficient level would earn ‘Cs’ in entry-level, credit-bearing courses in English and mathematics

 

Level 4 on the PARCC would be aligned to the proficient level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress and be set so that 75% of students who reached that level would likely earn Cs on entry-level college courses.  I don’t understand how “likely to succeed” (level 4) matches or aligns with getting “Cs” in entry-level courses in college.  What are the volumes of data they used to make this specific connection?  Gewertz indicates that the participants couldn’t agree on what a “C’ meant.  Even so, is a “C” on entry-level classes in most colleges a measure of success?  I think if you surveyed most college professors you would find that “C” is not the desirable grade, let alone an indicator of success, even if it is determined as passing.

  • Isn’t there a difference between passing a course and possessing deep understanding of the material such that the student is able to use and apply it?
  • Is it sufficient to aim for 75% of our students “passing” with C-level grades and or a “likely to succeed” in college status?

Why are we not defining the bar differently?  What about…

  • 95% of our students who graduate from high school possess the demonstrated ability to use or apply what they have learned in three of five curricular disciplines using performance-based assessment strategies that can effectively measure the application of knowledge AND that they can demonstrate some extension of what they have learned in a creative fashion.  (details to be worked out)

Of course the argument would be that this type of benchmark would be too hard to manage and measure.  However, I would venture to say that most educators would find this benchmark more interesting and enduring than the one being debated at PARCC.  I would also venture to say that most students would enjoy schooling if their evaluations were based on this benchmark, rather than what level they were on the PARCC assessment.

Here was one quote from Gewertz’s article that represented a glimmer of hope.

Some higher education representatives questioned the description of high-scoring high school students as “very likely to succeed.”  They noted that many factors come into play for college success that won’t be gauged by the PARCC assessment, such as persistence and motivation.  (page 11)

Isn’t it true that persistence and motivation are much more important to success in life (maybe college) than whether we have scored high on a standardized test?  We all know this is true.  So why do we continue to let our better judgments be swayed by organizations like PARCC, the federal government, and other educational organizations that continue to promote this idea of “scoring high on tests” leads to success.  Certainly, students who score high on standardized tests have a core set of skills that will help them in college; however, students who don’t score as high on standardized tests, but have perseverance and motivation, also have important skills that will help them be successful.

My other concern rests with students who will score at Levels 1-3 on the PARCC assessment.  If a student leaves the assessment with the label, “very unlikely to succeed,” what type of motivation will that be to stick with it, try again or rise up from the failure?  I think it will only serve to demoralize students in the same way that many are demoralized by schooling today.  About 20% of students do not graduate from high school in the US (click here for a resource on this topic).  We need standards and assessments that motivate and create a “need to learn” for all students.  Not standards and assessments that diminish the learner if they haven’t met the goals we set.

Our high-stakes testing environment only ties our hands and limits our ability as educators to be creative with our teaching and facilitate a learning environment that brings out the creative potential in our students.  I am fearful that the national assessment movement, of which PARCC is a member, will keep the US from regaining its prominence in delivering a high-quality educational experience for all students.

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