Less than 40 percent of 12th-graders ready for college, analysis finds

Results from NAEP, also known as the 'nation's report card,' have now been linked with academic preparedness for college. Currently, at least a quarter of college students need to take remedial-level courses.

Carolyn Kaster/AP
Cornelia Orr, Executive Director, National Assessment Governing Board pauses before she begins a program at Dunbar High School on May in Washington to announce results of The Nation's Report Card: 2013 Mathematics and Reading, Grade 12, which details 12th graders' performance in mathematics and reading nationwide and in 13 pilot states.

Less than 40 percent of America’s 12th-graders are academically prepared for college, according to results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often known as the "nation’s report card."

Twelfth-grade math and reading results for NAEP were released last week, and now on Wednesday, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) for the first time linked those results with academic preparedness for college. The results were sobering. Just 39 percent of 12th-graders have the math skills needed for entry-level college course work, and 38 percent have the necessary reading skills.

“Our job is to be the gold standard, the truth-teller,” says David Driscoll, chair of the National Assessment Governing Board, which sets policy for NAEP. “But clearly this is not acceptable, so I’m hoping people will get energized about this.”

Linking the NAEP scores to college readiness is the result of a 10-year effort on the part of the governing board – an attempt to make the tests a better indicator of preparedness and to give a clear picture of how ready students are to succeed in college in at least basic-level credit-bearing courses, without taking remedial classes.

Researchers investigated the skills needed in college and compared NAEP with other assessments for seniors, like SATs and ACTs. Mr. Driscoll says he feels highly confident that the NAEP scores are a good indicator of students’ preparedness.

The board did not feel comfortable linking the scores to career preparedness, where the skill sets needed are so varied.

To be considered academically prepared for college, seniors needed to score at least a 302 on NAEP’s reading test, which matches the “proficient” category, and at least a 163 on NAEP’s mathematics test, which falls between the "basic” and “proficient” categories.

These results, Driscoll notes, don’t include dropouts, which would have made the final statistics even worse. “In some urban schools,” he says, “they lose half their kids by the 12th grade.”

The concept of “college and career readiness” has been a focus of education reformers for some time, who are concerned that while graduation rates may be inching up, many students are leaving high school without the preparation they need for what lies beyond.

“A lot of times we’re getting kids to graduate by asking less of them, not more of them,” says David Conley, director of the Center for Educational Policy Research at the University of Oregon in Eugene.

“The question we have to ask ourselves is, how is it that we have probably twice that number of kids taking college-type prep courses, and yet only half of them are getting to the knowledge level they need? What’s going on in courses that are supposed to prepare kids for college?” Professor Conley asks.

Current NCES statistics, he says, show that about a quarter of college students need to take remedial-level courses (which aren’t credit-bearing), though he and other researchers think the actual number may be twice as much.

The students who fall into that remediation category tend to be disproportionately minority and low-income – the very students who are already underrepresented in college. The need for remediation drives up student debt and the cost of higher education, and it increases the likelihood that students won’t complete college, Conley says. “And if you look at where the economy is going, these are the people who are going to have to have at least some college if they’re going to succeed in this new economy, where most jobs require some kind of certificate,” he adds.

As dismal as the NAEP results are, they are actually higher than some other attempts to gauge seniors’ readiness for college. College readiness benchmarks set from the ACT – the most popular college entrance exam – have shown only about a quarter of ACT test-takers are prepared to succeed in college.

The lack of readiness is a problem for the US economy, says Driscoll. “We see our kids losing their place [compared with students in other countries], and there’s no question that the jobs of the future are going to require other skills,” he says. “But to me it’s more a moral imperative. We owe it to our kids. It’s not their fault. We should be holding them to higher standards.”

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