Study Finds In Most States, for Most Students, A High School Diploma is a Ticket to Nowhere: How the Gap Between Leaving High School and Entering College and High Performance Jobs Shortchanges American Students

Publication date: Dec 9, 1999

(Washington, D.C.) – According to a report released today by The Education Trust, high school requirements in many states are not sufficiently rigorous to prepare students for success in either college or the workplace. The study, Ticket to Nowhere: The Gap Between Leaving High School and Entering College and High-Performance Jobs, documents significant gaps between the course and testing requirements for high school graduation and those for admission and placement in college.

The Trust calls on policymakers-inside and outside of education-to take a “K-16″ approach to standards, course requirements and student testing, with the goal of ensuring that all high school graduates are fully prepared for success beyond high school.

“Many American young people are totally undone by the gaps between high school and college,” says Kati Haycock, Director of the Washington-based Education Trust. “They do everything their high schools tell them to do to get a diploma. But when they show up at even the local community college, they find that they do not have the knowledge and skills necessary to begin credit-bearing courses. And graduates who turn to the world of work don’t find the situation much better. Why? Because many high schools really don’t expect students to learn the things that both higher education and business say they need.”

Mathematics is a case in point. According to the report, most colleges expect students to have mastered the normal content of intermediate algebra in order to begin credit bearing mathematics coursework. Many high wage employers require the same thing. But most states don’t require students to complete even elementary algebra to graduate from high school. And even the new, widely-touted high school standards and assessments almost never venture beyond elementary algebra. This gap consigns countless college freshmen each year to spend valuable time in remedial courses learning what they could-and should-have learned in high school.

“K-12 and higher education must work together to align standards, courses and testing. Neither can go it alone on these issues,” said Haycock. Fortunately, the pace of K-16 collaboration around the country is beginning to pick up. As evidence, Haycock pointed to a recent joint action statement of state higher education and K-12 education leaders from 15 states (included in the report). “Students in these states will have a better chance than students in other states for getting the preparation that they need for success beyond high school.”

The joint action statement, With Renewed Hope and Determination, describes a set of mutual obligations between K-12 and higher education in the service of higher academic achievement for all students. It was jointly signed by higher education and K-12 leaders from: California, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Vermont and West Virginia.

The report notes that, despite a college going rate that has surpassed 70%, fewer than half of all high school graduates have completed the college prep course sequence. For low-income and minority students the college preparation rates are even lower. Fewer than 30% of the low-income high school students and just 35% of Latino and 43% of African American high school students are enrolled in the college prep track. But the problem is by no means limited to urban settings. Even graduates from wealthy suburban systems, like the one in Montgomery County, Maryland, spend valuable time in remedial courses.

“Given the fact that we are preparing only some students for college at a time when most students are going to college, we ought not be all that surprised by the high remediation rates,” Haycock said. According to the report, nearly one third of all college students require at least one remedial course.

“Parents and students are getting the very clear message that today’s young people need higher level skills and more knowledge than their predecessors did. Young people-with the support of their parents-are acting on that message. That’s why nearly three-quarters of our high school graduates are enrolling in college,” said Haycock.

“Educators, however, seem to be the last to get the message,” Haycock continued. “We continue to operate under the outdated notion that college is for the few, and that all the rest-the majority-will do something else. That’s just not true anymore. The majority are going to college…ready or not.”

“Many of the kids who land in remedial courses are the kids who played by what they were told were the rules in high school. They completed the courses, they passed the tests, they got admitted to college and wham, they take a college placement test that lands them in non-credit bearing remedial courses,” said Janis Somerville, Director of the National Association of System Heads (NASH), an organization that represents the heads of the nation’s state university systems. NASH collaborated with The Education Trust on the report.

“Adding insult to injury, we blame the kids saying ‘they must not have worked hard enough in high school,’ when the truth is more likely that the material on the placement test was never covered in their high school courses in the first place-even though the college considers it material that students need to do college level work. That’s the point at which the student finds that her high school diploma is little more than a ticket to nowhere,” concluded Somerville.

According to Haycock, the Trust’s report is intended to serve as a “tool box” of resources for policymakers and advocates “who are seeking to align the standards, course requirements and tests so that both systems-K-12 and higher education-better serve all students.” Therefore the report is divided into several discrete sections:

  • Recommendations for steps that states and communities can take to close the gap between high school and college and work expectations (pp. 29-31)
  • A comparison of the content in selected high school tests, tests used for college admissions and tests used for college placement (pp. 16-28) and
  • A state-by-state comparison of high school graduation requirements and university admissions requirements (pp. 14-15)
  • A statement from K-12 and university system leaders in 15 states on the goals and importance of K-16 collaboration (pp. 10-13)
  • Data on college preparation, college going and college completion (pp. 8-9)
  • An overview of the issues (pp. 3-7)

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Key Elements of Ticket to Nowhere

  • College going rates are soaring.
  • Nearly one third of all college students arrive unprepared for college level work and must take at least one remedial class.
  • Over 70% of high school graduates will go to college within two years of graduation. Data suggests that this rate will continue to climb.
  • Yet too few high school students are being prepared for college level work.
  • Nearly one third of all college students arrive unprepared for college level work and must take at least one remedial class.
  • Over 70% of high school graduates will go to college within two years of graduation. Data suggests that this rate will continue to climb.
  • ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS: While English courses are typically required by both systems for all four years of high school, the content of these courses often differ dramatically.
  • SCIENCE: In science, most universities insist on three years, including at least two years of laboratory science; for high school graduation, though, most states require not even a single lab course.
  • MATHEMATICS: In mathematics, the typical state requires graduates to complete two or three years of mathematics, but the content of those courses is not specified. Moreover, 17 of the 28 states with data that allow a comparison between high school graduation requirements and college admissions requirements allow students to earn a high school diploma having completed fewer mathematics courses than are required for admission to the state university system.
  • Too few states have course alignment between high school and college (see state-by-state chart pp. 14-15).
  • And things are worse for low-income students and students of color (see data p. 8).
  • While 50% of White high school students are enrolled in the college prep track, only 43% of African American students and 35% of Latino students are so enrolled.
  • While 65% of high-income high school students are enrolled in the college prep track, only 28% of low-income students are so enrolled.
  • Too many students find out too late that high school graduation exams, college admissions exams and college placement exams don’t line up.
  • George Pullman, associate professor of English, Georgia State University; and
  • Jim Lewis, professor of mathematics, University of Nebraska-Lincoln;
  • Carol D. Lee, associate professor, College of Education, Northwestern University;
  • Dan Jones, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Towson University, Maryland;
  • Gail Burrill, past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and now director of the Mathematical Sciences Education Board;
  • As part of this report, a team of subject specialists undertook an analysis of a selection of tests used in high school, for admissions to postsecondary institutions, and for placement in college courses. The team was led by Ruth Mitchell, a principal partner of The Education Trust, and worked with the advice of a distinguished national panel of experts in mathematics and English language arts (see list below). The analysis was limited to mathematics and English language arts because they are common to all tests.

Their analysis of these exams found that, “between the ages of 17 and 18, most American students will be subjected to at least three kinds of tests to measure what they learned in high school. These test, designed for different purposes, were unfortunately also designed with little, if any, coordination. Consequently, they present quite different visions of what students should have learned.”

ENGLISH LANGUAGE ARTS:

  • Except for some literature, the high school tests generally featured non-academic reading passages – typically short narratives and general interest informational pieces-and addressed so-called “functional” or “document” reading of texts such as tax forms, data presentations, and technical instructions. The admissions and placement tests had NO document reading, but were primarily academic and literary in nature.
  • The team found serious disconnects between tests in the level of content, the topics that were addressed and in the ways tests approached content. The high school tests by and large were much lower level than either the college admissions or placement exams.
  • There are some exceptions – New York Regents’ Exam in English – RIGOR FOR ALL.

According to the report, “the New York Regents’ exam integrated sophisticated and varied reading passages with written open-response questions…The Regents’ is intended for all students. It is also designed to influence teaching…the test ties reading and writing together and also offers the student help through scaffolding provided by the multiple choice questions.” As one of the advisory members noted, “If you pass this test, if rigorously graded, you could be ready for college.” And, most importantly, this exam is intended for ALL students.

MATHEMATICS:

  • The “Algebra 2 gap” is the most profound: Whereas the nationally available high school tests and TAAS do not address any mathematics at the level of Algebra 2 or above, college placement tests contain extensive Algebra 2 questions and some trigonometry and pre-calculus.
  • The analysis found significant differences between high school and college mathematics test.

The National Advisory Committee Panel includes:

  • George Pullman, associate professor of English, Georgia State University; and
  • Jim Lewis, professor of mathematics, University of Nebraska-Lincoln;
  • Carol D. Lee, associate professor, College of Education, Northwestern University;
  • Dan Jones, Dean of the College of Liberal Arts, Towson University, Maryland;
  • Gail Burrill, past president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics (NCTM), and now director of the Mathematical Sciences Education Board;
  • As part of this report, a team of subject specialists undertook an analysis of a selection of tests used in high school, for admissions to postsecondary institutions, and for placement in college courses. The team was led by Ruth Mitchell, a principal partner of The Education Trust, and worked with the advice of a distinguished national panel of experts in mathematics and English language arts (see list below). The analysis was limited to mathematics and English language arts because they are common to all tests.
  • Lynn Arthur Steen, past president of the Mathematics Association of America (MAA) and professor at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota.
  • Actions for Communities and States – 4 Recommendations:
  • Reward high-performing students by enabling them to begin college work early; provide extra time and help for high school students who are struggling.
  • Eliminate redundancies and mixed messages in assessments at the juncture of high school and college. States should move to the use of a single assessment of college readiness to replace the multiple assessments now being used by states.
  • All high school students should complete a rigorous, college-preparatory course of study. This not only means that K-12 must adjust its standards, but that higher education finally be clear about exactly what students need to know and be able to do and that higher education begin to produce teachers able to help students meet higher standards.
  • Take the wraps off current requirements. Everyone, teachers, students, and parents need to know and understand what exactly students need to know and be able to do in order to meet the challenges and demands of college level course work.

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