Tracking College Readiness

An unusual consortium of superintendents listens and learns about graduates’ postsecondary experiences by KEVIN A. SKELLY AND SCOTT T. LAURENCE

Twice a year, leaders from seven school districts from around the nation meet to discuss college life. These are not nostalgic conversations sharing experiences about our alma maters. Rather we address the common problem of college readiness in our collective work to better prepare students for a productive future.

While consortium members oversee school districts that are leaders in our respective states in terms of test scores and other measures of student achievement, we are concerned we are not doing enough to ensure all of our students are college-ready. Too many students who graduate from high schools return to their communities without having completed a college degree. In many cases, their last experience with the district is when they walk off the stage at graduation.

Kevin Skelly and Scott LaurenceKevin Skelly (center), superintendent in Palo Alto, Calif., with Sharon Ofek (left), principal of Jane Lathrop Stanford Middle School and staff members on Triplet Day.

We know our quarter-century-old memories of college life are not fully relevant to these students and, worse, they might cloud our thinking about the academic and personal experiences our students will need to succeed in postsecondary pursuits.

Listening Exercises
As school district leaders, we are at our best when we listen and learn from stakeholders, when we reflect on the world in which our students will live, particularly right after they leave us. Our stakeholders look to school officials for guidance and reassurance about college. We understand our responsibility to speak articulately to our communities, parents and students about the college experience.

From the 2007 inception of the 21st Century Consortium, members have focused on reaching out and learning from postsecondary institutions. Early on, all members of our consortium agreed to interview representatives of a community college, a state university and a selective private school within their geographical region.

Members then summarized their findings around four major issues — the academic characteristics of a successful student at the college or university; the personal characteristics of that same type of student; and, conversely, the academic qualities and personal qualities of those students who were not successful. Our goal was to meet with senior-level college administrators, such as the provost or vice president of academic affairs and their student affairs counterpart. We did gain access to most administrators.

Here are some things we learned about student experiences at the various levels of postsecondary institutions.

Community Colleges
In our school districts, virtually every senior is bound for some form of postsecondary study. While there are academically strong students who start at a community college and then transfer to a state university or complete an associate degree (especially for financial reasons), these students tend to have weaker academic histories.

In many ways, we found our conversations with community colleges the most inspiring, perhaps because of the multitude of challenges associated with their broad mission and open enrollment polices. We found these school officials deeply interested in increasing the connections between their work and ours.

Community colleges’ open enrollment policies have a negative effect on student motivation during high school, particularly during senior year. Seniors going to a “JC” (junior college) know their admission is guaranteed, so they often slack off and avoid challenging course work, particularly during their senior year. The bad habits formed in high school are not easily shaken.

Sadly, while remediation takes place at most postsecondary schools, the enrollment rates are highest among community college students. We need to do more to raise awareness about the consequences of remedial classes on a student’s success in college, including the loss of time and expense associated with being underprepared for college-level work.

Equally important, we need to examine ways we can raise expectations and metrics around remediation classes. Some consortium members are in states that recently enacted laws requiring four years of academic study in each core curriculum area (math, social studies, world language, science and English) for high school graduation. It will be interesting for us to see whether this affects the remediation rates of their graduates.

While the work of K-12 educators and higher education always has been disjointed, we heard laments about the lack of consistency among community colleges in terms of standards for college readiness. In many states, placement tests are designed and scored by individual community colleges. Our students often choose community colleges geographically distant from their high schools. This mobility, combined with the inconsistency of placement tests, makes a closer coupling between high schools and community colleges difficult indeed. K-12 educators and their community college counterparts have a strong interest in pushing state legislators to build connections between community college class placement standards and high school graduation requirements.

When asked to name one recommendation we should give every high school student considering community college, the most mentioned was to make math part of senior year, ideally through a course tethered to second-year algebra or community college math placement. Because high school graduation requirements do not always call for four years of math, many of our students, particularly those without strong math skills, avoid math as seniors.

In far too many schools, senior-level math and its curriculum are a function of the interests of the teacher or “fun” activities that will maintain the attention of seniors when schoolwork becomes seemingly less important. By explicitly tying our 12th-grade math curricula to the next step in students’ lives, we believe we can help students be prepared for college and motivated by their schoolwork.

On the personal characteristics dimension, successful community college students were those who took college life seriously and approached their college work as one would a job. Students who were employed full time often lacked the time or energy to serve both masters — their employer and their professors.

Like our high school students, community college attendees who were active in campus life tended to perform best. Finally, our interviewees reported that tuition costs are not a major challenge for students; resources exist to pay the direct cost of tuition and books. Rather, it may be that the opportunity cost associated with being in school (rather than working) is the biggest impediment to community college success. This further underscores the costs associated with unacceptable levels of remediation in college.

State Universities
The state college and university administrators we interviewed worked at schools with large enrollments. They were concerned about the social-emotional health of their students and were seeking new ways to assess and support students in this regard as they transition to adulthood.

College administrators are also preoccupied today with the role of parents and their investment, and, in many cases, overinvestment in their students’ lives. While we see this behavior consistently in our high schools, it clearly does not end when students leave us. This overinvolvement makes it challenging for students to grow into adulthood.

The number of students graduating annually from our high schools is cresting. We are struck by how difficult the admissions decisions are for flagship state colleges and universities. They struggle with issues surrounding access, equal opportunity and student body diversity. Clearly in this mix is an emphasis on class rank, SAT and ACT scores and other standardized measures. For communities, schools and students, issues of No Child Left Behind’s program improvement and state accountability measures play second fiddle.

Finally, as in our conversations with all college and university officials, these state administrators indicated the ability to express oneself in written and verbal form is indispensible at the college level. Multiple short essays and five-page papers assigned over a quarter or semester are the norm. This differs greatly from our high school assessments, which often include rough drafts and other milepost assignments and assessments. While this difference can be partially attributed to the level and skill of students, we need to keep this in mind as we think about preparing students for postsecondary success.

Presentation of a thesis and integrating facts and opinions from multiple disciplines or content areas are all skills reported to us as necessary for college. The college leaders pointed to a weakness in technical writing. A second area of emphasis at the state colleges was the need for good communication skills, in class and out of class. Self-advocacy is indispensible for our students in this new environment.

Private Universities
Much of the attention from the news media and our parent community centers on private, highly selective colleges and universities. This is true despite the fact state universities and community colleges enroll many times more students.

From our perspective, these selective schools often seemed least interested in discussing academic preparation. Students at these schools had the academic preparation to excel. The most pressing issues in our discussion with private, selective school leaders focused on the social-emotional health of students.

Two characteristics emerged from our conversations with private university leaders. First, students needed to be comfortable with failure. These university administrators commented on how little experience these students had with falling short of their or their parents’ expectations.

In many ways, this is a great irony — it is the ability to be so successful, and therefore to be admitted to a selective school, that proves to be their undoing when they arrive on campuses. While we believe our high schools are safe places to take chances and experience failure, many students and families worry that anything that might be perceived as a weakness or misstep will be fatal to college admission chances.

The second crucial characteristic found in successful students at these schools is a personal voice. The student who has a personal passion, a particular interest or activity, is most successful. College is a time when a separation exists between students whose achievement has been driven by family or simply the desire to be admitted to a prestigious college and those students who possess their own sense of identity and voice.

For many selective private schools, there is little doubt or worry that the students who are admitted possess the academic preparation to do college-level academic work. The hardest adjustments are social. For this reason, the private university administrators we interviewed stressed how much they wanted us to help students in this regard. For K-12 educators, these are hard-to-teach skills, extremely difficult to evaluate and harder to accept as learning opportunities, given the perception about selective college admission criteria.

Common Elements
The dreaded blue exam book of our collegiate days seems alive and well at all levels of postsecondary study. K-12 educators spend a great deal of time thinking about and implementing new forms of assessment. By their own admission, colleges are far behind K-12 education in the organizational capacity and creativity around assessment. It seems clear we need to recognize this reality for our students.

The ability to write well came up in our conversations with virtually all university administrators. University life still consists of many short, effective essays and other writing assignments. For us, this is a reminder of the importance of English classes that emphasize these skills, as opposed to an emphasis on literary analysis, for students as they move to college.

Advanced Placement courses help to prepare high school students for the rigor of college and are expected on transcripts by the highly selective schools. However, many colleges and universities no longer are granting college credit for AP courses as frequently as they have in the past. The critical thinking and analysis required in AP courses are extremely beneficial in preparing students for college writing and assessment.

While there are other common elements, we emerged from our conversations with a renewed understanding of how much independence and personal responsibility students have for their learning and their lives in college. But how does this influence our mind-set with respect to students on the threshold of adulthood?

On the academic level, this already has sparked discussions about how, perhaps, we should emphasize large, high-stakes assignments for our upperclassmen, as opposed to the multiple opportunities students have to earn points throughout the semester in a typical high school course. On other, nonacademic parts of school, our conversations with university officials encourage us to increase dialogue with the parents of seniors regarding their ability to handle money, laundry, free time and other dimensions related to personal independence and responsibility.

Other Learning
Every 21st Century Consortium meeting centers on college readiness. At our last meeting, the host school district brought in recent graduates, home for a long weekend, to respond to our questions about preparation. Another district has surveyed every college admissions officer who visits the high school to talk to prospective students about the characteristics they find in successful students. Another consortium member has effectively used Facebook to collect insights from recent graduates.

We always talk about the ways in which we organize and deliver college counseling services and information. Each school district brings recent alumni to share their wisdom about college with administrators and high school upperclassmen.

At our last meeting, discussion focused on the importance of creativity for college students, with administrators wondering how we could cultivate creativity in our students. The thriving college student and the most effective employees are those who not only know a lot but also can synthesize information from various fields into new knowledge and different perspectives.

The growth in interdisciplinary studies at the college level can be seen as a postsecondary response to this need. As school district leaders, we have a role to play in ensuring our teachers feel liberated to encourage this work without losing perspective of the other educational demands present in our system.

Few university officials could recount having conversations with their K-12 brethren, and we sheepishly admit our communications have been limited. In our struggles to improve our operations and raise student achievement, we will be influenced by what we heard and learned from those who inherit our students. Thinking about issues of learning and development influenced by the experiences and expectations of colleges and universities can only help us be more effective educators and champions for our students.

Kevin Skelly is the superintendent of the Palo Alto Unified School District in Palo, Alto, Calif. E-mail: kskelly@pausd.org. Scott Laurence is superintendent of the San Mateo Union High School District in San Mateo, Calif.