As college-prep test scores falter, how the US can respond

Despite President Obama's challenge in 2009 for students to go into higher ed, test scores for the SAT and Act are not showing progress. The problem may be one of low expectations, despite the new Common Core standards and changes in state-level testing.

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
Students take a test at The Davidson Academy of Nevada for gifted students.

In 2009, President Obama asked high school students to “commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training.” The goal was to improve America’s global competitiveness. If there is a report card on how well the country has succeeded in this challenge, it can be found in the results of two tests that measure the readiness of students to do well in college.

Recent scores for the SAT and ACT reveal just how difficult Mr. Obama’s challenge is to achieve. SAT scores were flat in 2013 after two years of decline, while the ACT scores were the lowest in five years.

For the ACT, which is now the more widely used test, nearly a third of students didn’t meet any of the four benchmarks (English, reading, mathematics, and science). For the SAT, fewer than half of the test-takers were deemed college-ready.

In an echo of Obama’s challenge, David Coleman, president of the College Board that administers the SAT, said the results were a “call to action,” saying that even the SAT itself had to improve the way it measures skill levels. “We must dramatically increase the number of students in K-12 who are prepared for college and careers,” he said.

On at least two other measures, public schools are succeeding: A higher percentage of students are graduating from high school, and the academic skills of those entering high school have improved. Both are a testament to the national efforts since the 1970s to raise education standards and to measure the quality of each school through state-level testing – despite the ongoing disputes over how to do each.

But training students to be prepared for a post-K-12 education is still a problem. One theme that runs through the many reforms is that parents and teachers need to have higher expectations of students, and not just by raising standards, redesigning curriculum, or conducting regular and rigorous testing. Students respond to a host of incentives, and the most important may be an adult’s perception of how well a student can perform.

“One thing that’s so striking is how students will often be surprised that they can do harder work than they thought they could,” said Mr. Coleman, who was also instrumental in coming up with the Common Core standards now being implemented in most states. (Those standards were drawn up by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, not the federal government.)

One leader in raising expectations has been Massachusetts, which has had two decades of success in raising student achievement. The state now ranks alongside Japan and Switzerland in educational quality. Its high school graduates met the Obama standard of being globally competitive.

The tyranny of low expectations also extends to teacher training. In a report this week, the advocacy group Education Trust cited the leading problem in teacher preparation as “low expectations for who is accepted and who graduates.”

“In the same way that states and districts are increasingly holding individual teachers and leaders to higher expectations for performance, states must implement a real system of performance measurement and accountability that holds programs preparing those teachers and leaders to a high standard,” the report stated.

Most students who went through school can cite a teacher who expected far more of them than they could imagine being capable of delivering. That teacher saw talents and qualities that others didn’t. The real challenge for public schools is to expand the ability of all teachers, as well as many parents, to do the same.

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