The chimera we call college readiness

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The stated goal of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is to “support innovation that can improve U.S. K-12 public schools and ensure that students graduate from high school ready to succeed in college.” College readiness has become a rallying cry for educational reformers. Educational administrators know that their positions may hinge upon convincing parents and higher-ups that their particular programs are improving college readiness.

But what does it mean to improve college readiness? When the verbiage is stripped away from reports on this issue, what remains tends to be lists of test scores: ACT and SAT scores, state test scores, PARCC scores*, EXPLORE scores, MAP scores, AIMSWEB scores, ACCESS scores, and other scores are all used to document progress toward college readiness.

Educational leaders keep spinning their stories, finding the data that supports their case and continued employment. If a district takes enough tests, some positive data will emerge. The other data tends to become footnotes in reports.

Unfortunately, scores are not readiness. Scores are not innovations that improve schools. Score not only do not ensure that students graduate from high school ready to succeed in college, they may keep students out of the colleges of their choice. In and of themselves, scores may even be anti-college readiness. The pursuit of scores took around 10% of my last school year, time that might otherwise have been dedicated to instruction.

The meaning of scores may not be straightforward, either. A review of middle school scores in the Illinois state report cards for the years 2012 to 2013 shows a precipitous drop in score results. The state obviously changed how scores were calculated between those years. Scores fell almost across the board – and many school scores fell over 30 points. For example, North Boone Middle school fell from 82% to 51% meeting and exceeding requirements. The whole state fell 23 percentage points.
northboone
From the Illinois interactive report card, http://iirc.niu.edu/Classic/School.aspx?schoolId=040042000261001.

We are not exactly inventing numbers but we are not presenting enduring truths either.

Yet the solutions presented for our numerous, complex educational challenges seem to mostly involve new and better test preparation methods designed to get higher scores. I am reminded of the joke about the man looking for his car keys:

A cop walking his beat one night finds a man down on his knees, searching for something on the street.
“What are you doing?” The cop asks.
“Looking for my car keys,” says the man.
The cop helps him look for awhile without success, then says, “Think back. Where were you when you last had your keys?”
“I don’t know,” the man answers. “Down the block on the other side over there, I think.”
“Then, why are you looking here?” the perplexed cop asks.
“Because the light is better under the streetlight,” the man answers.

This hackneyed joke fits today’s educational climate perfectly. Current strategies usually involve forming committees and discussing the problems that are keeping test scores down – without regard to whether or not test scores are actually the problem. These groups then brainstorm ways to improve test scores. No one asks whether raising test scores is the best or right strategy. We are told the higher test scores are necessary to prepare students for college. We are told that all students must be made college ready.

Rather than forming multiple committees and launching into lengthy debates about where the test went wrong, though, and why not all of our students are ready for college, I know what we ought to try first: Take 20 students at random from a failing school and have each student try to read one page of their science book aloud. Then check for understanding. A lot of students can pronounce words that are pretty much nonsense syllables to them. Repeat this page-reading exercise in other subject areas. This is so basic I feel stupid writing it down, but many people who ought to be smarter seem to miss a large point nowadays: If you can’t even understand the simplest paragraphs in your textbook, learning new material becomes hard — or even impossible.

Students who cannot understand their books are not going to succeed in college, no matter how many points we add to their scores.

*Except the PARCC scores still don’t seem to be back. Where are those numbers? I suspect the fail rate was so high that the persons responsible for this test can’t find any way to spin the results.