Making the college leap

High school to college-level work in a single bound? For many students, that transition is difficult. But in some districts, K-12 and university systems are joining forces to fill in the gaps.

Following graduation at an area high school last spring, Nicole White, a self-described "typical kid" with a 2.7 grade-point average, took several placement tests at St. Louis Community College. The results were anything but heartening. After completing high school courses in Algebra I and II, geometry, and pre-calculus, she was slotted for a basic math class and what amounted to remedial English. Retesting moved her up a level in math, but she'll have to take English this summer at a different school, since the remedial class credit won't transfer to a four-year college.

"It's frustrating," she says. "I took all those classes and I know I have the ability, but it's as if they aren't willing to give me a chance."

The transition from high school to higher education is often a challenge. But educators are increasingly concerned it has become much more than that. Despite a national move toward more-rigorous standards for high school graduation, a pronounced gap has opened between secondary and post-secondary schools. Many young people are still arriving at college without the requisite skills to succeed, putting a severe strain on college resources and prompting more-marginal students to drop out. What's particularly needed, some observers say, is better communication between K-12 educators and those in colleges and universities on how to improve students' preparation.

"Kids are falling into a kind of chasm between high school and college," says Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust in Washington. "They do everything expected of them in high school, but when they show up for college, they find they don't have the necessary knowledge and skills. This mismatch is of vital concern because it threatens where we're going as a country."

The ramifications are starkly evident in California. There, 68 percent of California State University students scored poorly on placement tests last year and required at least one remedial course. Nationwide, half of all college students found themselves facing the same situation. For the vast majority of them, the process is more bother than concern, but for those who must take four to five remedial classes, the rate of graduation within four years drops to less than 10 percent, according to the US Department of Education.

Nearly 3 out of 4 high school graduates now go on to some form of college, many more than a generation ago. They're pushed to do so by an economy where the white-collar job market has exploded even as blue-collar jobs paying family-sustainable salaries have dwindled. Students unable to make the transition from high school to college, and from there to graduation and into the workforce, may get mired in low-paying jobs.

According to experts, such changing workforce requirements have simply exacerbated the effects of a longstanding lack of cooperation between K-12 and higher education. For their part, high schools claim they don't get clear signals about standards from colleges. They also raise the question of why colleges admit students if they are so poorly prepared, and why they don't do a better job of preparing future K-12 teachers.

Colleges bemoan the lack of preparation among students, but often see standards-setting as too political. They choose to remain above the fray and continue to focus on more-established measures like SAT scores.

"There is a lack of institutions and organizations to make policy between K-12 and higher education," said Michael Kirst, a professor of Education at Stanford University in California. "They don't meet to hammer out these issues. They are separate, self-contained worlds."

But that is starting to change in a number of locations. One budding success story is in Georgia, where a preschool-through-college (P-16) initiative has brought together the state university system and local school districts to focus on aligning teacher skills, curriculum, standards, and testing. The program digs deep, looking at not only what courses students take but also what they actually learn. It also addresses teacher training and the development of "gateway" standards - test requirements students must fulfill before being able to advance - for grades 3, 5, 8, and 11. Although it is too early to judge the effectiveness of the program, high-level visibility and support from the university chancellor is boosting its prospects.

"People are realizing the problem is systemic," says Jan Kettlewell, assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs for the University of Georgia system. "You need a P-16 or K-16 structure to solve it. Mere communication is insufficient."

In El Paso, the University of Texas and three local school districts have forged a K-16 partnership that is already paying dividends. High schools are benefiting from teacher and curriculum development, while the university is getting a revamped teacher-preparation program. The beneficiaries are low-income students, who are often the victims of the gap between K-12 and higher education. College-prep-course completions have risen, and the performance gap between minority and white students has narrowed.

The movement to set higher standards in school curricula, which has gained momentum in recent years, does not by itself adequately address K-16 concerns, according to a recent report by the Education Trust entitled "Ticket to Nowhere." Such standards-setting was typically guided by national bodies that listed what was most important in their disciplines, rather than by college faculty describing what first-year students should know.

The study makes four key recommendations: Require all high school students to take a rigorous college-preparatory course of study; make current requirements more understandable to students and parents; reduce multiple college assessments now in use by states to a single assessment; and blur the line between high school and college for high-performing students - for instance, by allowing high school students to take college classes.

But not everyone believes students are hapless victims when it comes to the disconnect between high school and college. "Senior slump" - avoiding difficult subjects in the final year of high school - and a host of other student choices can contribute to dismal college-placement scores.

But the University of Georgia's Dr. Kettlewell, for one, believes student accountability should be viewed as the last piece of the puzzle. "Only after high schools have begun offering the proper curriculum, and only after colleges have begun providing teachers to teach the proper curriculum, can we begin to hold students accountable."

Simply creating a K-16 mindset is the first goal for many educators. Despite surveys showing that 95 percent of parents have an expectation of college for their children, high schools still tend to sort students into college-bound and non-college-bound. Last year, a group of state higher- education and K-12 leaders from 15 states released a joint action statement that included the following: "Our nation is no longer served by an education system that prepares a few to attend college to develop their minds ... while the rest are expected only to build their muscles for useful labor. In the twenty-first century, all students must meet higher achievement standards ... and thus be better prepared to meet the challenges of work and citizenship."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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