Why High School Graduates Turn Out to Be College Illiterates

Sally Jean Wegert SchoolChoiceWeekEdit 20

It is diploma season and many high school graduates are looking forward to the fall when they enter college.  Unfortunately, too many of these graduates are in for a rude awakening when they discover that their K-12 public education has left them woefully unprepared for the rigors of college coursework.

Education Week recently pointed out that high school graduates’ “college readiness has reached historic lows, according to several metrics—including the lowest scores in 30 years on the ACT and declining scores on the SAT, the two primary standardized tests used for college admissions.”

The ACT measures college readiness in English composition, social sciences, algebra, and biology.  Janet Godwin, the head of the ACT, told Education Week: “Fewer students leaving high school are meeting all four college readiness benchmarks [on ACT tests].  Just 21 percent of high school seniors are meeting all of these benchmarks; 43 percent of students meet none of them.”

“Our research suggests that students meeting so few of these benchmarks are not going to perform as well in their credit-bearing freshman classes,” Godwin noted.

High school teachers know that today’s graduates are poorly prepared for college.

“A lot of these kids are coming out of high school with a fifth-grade reading level,” said former longtime California teacher Christy Lozano.  “They can’t go to [community college] and make up for that.”

Yet, many of these poorly prepared high school graduates are getting into college because of their inflated grade point averages.

A major study by the ACT found that from 2010 to 2022 the grade point average in high school English, math, science, and social studies courses among students taking the ACT college-entrance test increased year over year, while their ACT scores decreased in every one of those subjects.

Shockingly, by 2022, nearly nine out of 10 students taking the ACT received either an A or a B in their high school core classes.

Yet, in the past few years, many colleges have begun favoring grade point averages over scores on tests like the SAT and ACT, with the result that legions of unprepared students now populate their classrooms.

College professors around the country are shocked by the decline in knowledge and skills of their new students.

According to the Chronicle of Higher Education, professors from Wellesley to Cal State Los Angeles now have students who do not read well and do not work very hard.  Many students have a weak vocabulary, poor reading endurance, are unable to analyze complete or lengthy texts, and lack the context to understand various arguments and points of view.

In response, one professor told the publication that she started assigning less reading.  However, despite fewer assignments, students were still not doing the readings.  Even when students did do the readings they struggled to understand them.  They also complained about doing research papers because it was too hard.

In an essay for Slate, Professor Adam Kotsko of North Central College in Illinois said he used to assign 30 pages of reading per class, but, “Now students are intimidated by anything over 10 pages and seem to walk away from readings of as little as 20 pages with no real understanding.”

“Considerable class time,” he said, “is taken up simply establishing what happened in a story or the basic steps of an argument—skills I used to be able to take for granted.”

He and his fellow professors agree “that we are facing new obstacles in structuring and delivering our courses, requiring us to ratchet down expectations in the face of a ratcheting down of preparation.”

He warned, “we are in new territory when even highly motivated honors students struggle to grasp the basic argument of a 20-page article.”

The situation in math at colleges is even worse, which is not surprising since high school grade inflation increased at the greatest rate in math.

For my soon-to-be-released book The Great Classroom Collapse: Teachers, Students, and Parents Expose the Collapse of Learning in America’s Schools, which will be published by the Pacific Research Institute, I interviewed a math instructor at a California college who teaches calculus.  He said that among his students, lack of foundational algebra knowledge is “the number one deficiency and it’s chronic.”

“So when a student comes to college,” he observed, “without algebra skills and without analytical skills there is really no hope.”

“It causes a lot of problems because that person is not ready to be educated at the level of calculus.”

Because they lack necessary algebra knowledge and skills, he said many students drop out of harder classes like calculus.  Such attrition is unsurprising because if a student has inadequate algebra skills, “you’re going to be on quicksand in calculus, you’re going to fail every step along the way.”

Even among those who do not drop out of class, he believes, “maybe a large percentage of the remaining students aren’t really prepared, either.”

If his course were being taught in a high-performing math country like Singapore, he predicted, “I wouldn’t be surprised if 85 percent [of his students] were not able to pass it at all.”

Such poorly prepared students have little chance in highly demanding job markets such as Silicon Valley.

“You can see that the companies don’t want these graduates,” he noted.  “So a company in Silicon Valley that’s specializing in artificial intelligence wants heavy hitters and you’re never going to be a part of that.”

According to Education Week, “There’s nothing worse than approaching a challenging situation grossly unprepared—except, perhaps, believing you’re well-equipped for the task only to find that you’ve overestimated your preparedness,” which is a scenario “that’s becoming increasingly common for college-bound seniors.”

In my book The Great Classroom Collapse, I conclude that too many K-12 schools “are putting political ideology over what works, whether it be a misguided equity agenda that seeks to dumb down learning to the lowest common denominator” or progressive curricula and instructional methods that are being used “in intellectual defiance of empirical evidence showing that are ineffective and are damaging children.”

Unless these practices are changed drastically and quickly, the outlook for our young people and our nation looks bleak.  “We are not complaining about our students,” said Adam Kotsko, but rather, “We are complaining about what has been taken from them.”

Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute.  He is the author of the upcoming PRI book The Great Classroom Collapse: Teachers, Students, and Parents Expose the Collapse of Learning America’s Schools.

Nothing contained in this blog is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the views of the Pacific Research Institute or as an attempt to thwart or aid the passage of any legislation.

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