Are most of Michigan’s high school graduates really not “college and career ready”? Discouraging statistics are bandied about, frequently by the Governor, but how many of us understand what lies behind them?
The first thing you should know is that these readiness standards have been developed by ACT (http:///www.act.org). They are “detailed, research-based descriptions of the skills and knowledge associated with what students are likely to know and to be able to do based on their EXPLORE [grades 8 and 9], PLAN [grade 10], and/or ACT [grades 11 and 12] test scores. Certain benchmark scores (or cut scores) at each level of testing “represent the median test scores that are predictive of student success” — that is, “a 50% or higher probability of earning a B or higher in the corresponding college course or courses.” These definitions were adopted as part of the Common Core State Standards to which we have pledged to adhere. So, Michigan (and most other states’) public schools will now be judged on how well our students do in mastering the knowledge and skills defined and assessed by ACT.
Although it is commendable that all the states will now be trying to educate our children to the same standard, I have some problems with this universal system.
My number-one concern is that our high school graduates will now be labeled “not ready” for college or career unless they have achieved mastery in all four tested areas: English, Mathematics, Reading, and Science. How many successful adults are equally proficient in all domains of human knowledge? Let me give some examples of how I think these standards are too inflexible.
ACT predicts that you would need an ACT science score of 24 or better (out of 36) to have an even chance of getting a B on a college science course. But what if you have no intention of pursuing a scientific discipline or a career requiring such standards? Must everyone “understand the methods and tools used in a complex experiment,” no matter their career goal?
If you plan to be an electrician or a computer programmer, of course you will need decent reading and writing skills, but must you really be skilled at “revising expressions that deviate from the style of an essay,” as required to meet the readiness benchmark?
If you plan to be an artist or a preschool teacher, why should the standards dictate that you are “not ready” unless you can “evaluate quadratic functions, expressed in function notation, at integer values”?
If you intend to pursue a career in journalism, shouldn’t the standards for writing mastery (as measured by ACT English test) — and therefore for prediction of success in college courses —be higher than if your chosen field requires little or no writing? If you desire a career in science journalism, then your general and specific knowledge of scientific concepts and specialized jargon should also be higher than required for success in many other fields.
My objection, then, is that we have defined a single path toward success in college or career, when we know from observation and experience that there are multiple paths.
My larger concern, however, is that these are merely academic standards, while research, observation, and experience all tell us that certain personal characteristics are much more predictive of success, both in school and in life. My twenty years of involvement with mentoring programs has been based upon the belief that changing curriculum and instruction is not enough to guarantee student success — we must also change the student. Here are my personal benchmarks for college and career readiness:
• Does the person exhibit self-confidence, initiative, and responsibility?
• Is the person resilient and persistent in the face of difficulty and setbacks?
• Can the person handle constructive criticism and bear injustice without needing revenge?
• Is the person curious, receptive to new opinions, and eager to keep learning?
• Can the person listen, empathize, and collaborate with others who are unlike him/her?
• Does the person have a good grasp of what s/he doesn’t know and how s/he might learn what is required?
Good teachers have always striven to help their charges reach such developmental benchmarks, but a business axiom tells us that “you get what you measure.” I would add that, when both pay and ability to keep a job depend on what is measured, that may be all that you will get. Our over-emphasis on specific academic measures has explicitly devalued (and crowded out of our classrooms) the very skills that employers say they most want and that we all know to be predictive of success. We seem to have forgotten that character and personal development are also essential goals of education and life preparation.