The Road to Readiness

Across the U.S., incoming university students are preparing for the rigors of academic life.  Unfortunately, many may find themselves unprepared for even first year college coursework.  As this recent Wall Street Journal article makes clear, of the 1.6 million students in the 2010 graduating class who sat for the ACT “only 29% met college-readiness standards on all four subjects.  [In addition,] 28% of students didn’t score high enough on even one subject-matter exam to ensure college readiness.”

This is disappointing news.  As the article points out:

President Obama has said that the nation’s long-term prosperity depends on fixing the nation’s high schools and preparing students to compete in a global economy.  A recent study found the U.S. ranks only 12th in the percentage of adults aged 25 to 34 who hold college degrees, and Mr. Obama has set a goal of becoming No.1.

Preparing students for the challenges of life after high school is no small feat.  In fact, our own Dr. Malbert Smith has written on the importance of facing these challenges and has offered the way toward some solutions.  As Dr. Smith explains:

The basic goals are twofold:  first, we need to ensure that all high school students graduate college- and career-ready; and second, we need to improve our performance relative to other countries as measured by international benchmarks.

He goes on to explain that in order to prepare students for the demands of the post-secondary world we must concentrate on the following principles:

Time. “We need to rethink the amount of time our students spend in school, and find ways to increase the school day, week and year.”  He points out that in many other countries, students spend up to 60 more days per year in the classroom.  This clearly puts students in the U.S. at a huge disadvantage when trying to compete internationally.

Early education. Smith points to research that has shown that children acquire a considerable amount of knowledge (of numbers, in particular) before entering kindergarten.  This serves as the foundation on which they will rely for years to come.  However, “low-income students face tremendous achievement gaps when they enter school.  [These children] enter school with far less knowledge than their middle-income peers, introducing an achievement gap which widens progressively over time.”

Summer loss. As we’ve addressed in the past students who do not read during the summer suffer tremendous losses in reading growth.  However, as Smith argues, there are several effective, low-cost, and widely accessible options that address this issue.  Research has “demonstrated that if students read eight books that match their reading ability and areas of interest over the summer, they can realize gains similar to those students who attended summer school.”

Select interventions and programs that are grounded in the components of deliberate practice. “The instructional principles required to move a student from a novice to an expert in any discipline are well defined.  Research suggests that a novice develops into an expert through an intricate process that includes the following components:

  1. targeted practice in which one is engaged in developmentally appropriate activities;
  2. real-time corrective feedback that is based on one’s performance;
  3. intensive practice on a daily basis that provides results that monitor current ability;
  4. distributed practice that provides appropriate activities over a long period of time, which allows for monitoring growth towards expert performance; and
  5. self-directed practice for those times when a coach, mentor or teacher is not available.”

Meaningful and actionable assessment data. “The first breakthrough in a new era of meaningful assessments rests upon the idea that educational constructs, such as reading, writing and mathematics, can be measured on vertical/developmental scales.  The second breakthrough is predicated upon the premise that just like we can order students from low to high across the vertical scales of reading, writing and mathematics, we also can order instructional content along the same vertical scales.” In other words, not only do students now share a common scale (by which we can measure growth), but those students may be matched to targeted materials in both reading and mathematics using the same scale.

Teacher quality and school leadership. Few would argue against the assertion that teacher quality plays a significant role in student success or that school and district leadership is essential for the success of schools and districts around the country.  Smith suggests that one approach to mitigating this challenge is to harness the power of personalized learning systems, as delivered through technology.  Technology has made individualized learning not only possible, but practical as well.  As Smith states, “the days of the digital divide must give way to the democratization of opportunity that digital resources provide.”

As of late there has been a welcome focus on what it means to be college and career ready.  Efforts like the Common Core State Standards Initiative, in fact, explicitly offer standards around the idea of what it means to be on track for college and career readiness.  As states begin to shift their focus from proficiency to readiness for the post-secondary world, it’s our hope that these principles will help inform state efforts to ensure that every student is ready for life beyond the walls of their high school.

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