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The Fog of "College Readiness"

CHESTER E. FINN, JR.

Our K-12 education system has a transparency problem, and our higher-education system is complicit. While some American parents have a decent sense of whether their children are on track for the kinds of colleges they hope to attend, many more have been kept in the dark — or have been sorely misled. Most parents think their children are on track to be prepared for college after their 12th-grade year, and most students agree. But the truth is, a shockingly large share of graduating high-school seniors are not prepared to go to college — more than half, by some estimates. Given that the vast majority of high-school students plan to eventually pursue some kind of post-secondary degree, this means millions of kids are being set up for failure.

The source of this gap between belief and reality is the K-12 education system. Our schools create a fog when it comes to academic preparation for college success. Concerned more with inclusiveness, validation, and graduation than with college preparedness, administrators encourage teachers to, for instance, consider pupil effort in their grading, and push students to take advanced courses for which they have the ambition but not the readiness. Those in charge have their reasons, which mostly turn out to safeguard the interests of adults and their institutions, even as they wreak havoc with the next generation. None of this is acknowledged, however, save by a handful of would-be illuminators, for the education system has generally persuaded itself that this fog is better for kids than clarity would be.

And the colleges themselves are complicit in this fraud, often for similar reasons. They admit students who they know are not adequately prepared to take on credit-bearing courses, and then require them to complete remedial classes to catch up. Most students who are required to take these "developmental" courses never make it to classes that earn credit, and in time they leave school with nothing but debt and disillusion.

If Hillary Clinton had her way, entry through the ivy gates would eventually become cost-free for almost everyone. Her campaign literature promised that, "By 2021, families with income up to $125,000 will pay no tuition at in-state four-year public colleges and universities. And from the beginning, every student from a family making $85,000 a year or less will be able to go to an in-state four-year public college or university without paying tuition." Moreover, "[a]ll community colleges will offer free tuition." This "free college" plan, however, would do nothing to solve the problem that students aren't able to do the work, and it would only inflate the number of ill-prepared students pursuing post-secondary degrees that they cannot achieve. (This plan is unlikely to be realized during the Trump administration.)

Ambition and optimism are laudable traits. So is this country's long tradition as a place of second chances, a land where you can always start over, compensate for past mistakes, choose a new direction, and find the educational path that takes you there. But at a certain point, encouragement becomes damaging. It's time for our K-12 school system and our institutions of higher education to take responsibility for their complicity in a system that lies to millions of students and their families every year.

SET UP FOR FAILURE

It's no secret that possessing a college degree vastly improves one's chances of attaining the "good life." It helps greatly in the quest for a decent job, a living wage, upward mobility (if one's parents had no such degrees), and full participation in American society. Indeed, a society full of college graduates is apt to be not just wealthier but healthier and more stable than one populated by dropouts and people with only K-12 schooling.

The evidence surrounds us, as do studies that document it. Part of what distinguishes the residents of "Belmont" from those of "Fishtown" in Charles Murray's devastating book, Coming Apart, is that the former take post-secondary degrees for granted for themselves and their offspring while few residents of the latter completed college and few of their progeny will. It's a phenomenon of bipartisan interest; political scientist Robert Putnam's recent work, Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, underscores the same painful distinction. Putnam reports that, even among children who have the highest test scores, 74% of those from the highest income quartile will get a college degree, while only 29% of kids from the bottom quartile will graduate.

Having a degree matters more as the economy evolves. A recent Georgetown University study reported that, of the 11.6 million jobs created in the United States since the 2008 recession, almost all went to people with "at least some college education." And 8.4 million of those were filled by people with bachelor's degrees or more. Those with associate's degrees — usually obtained from a community college — snagged another 3.1 million. Those with only a high-school diploma (or less) accounted for barely a hundred thousand. Federal data show that — although it matters greatly what college one goes to and what field one majors in — those who can flourish degrees have average lifetime earnings that exceed those of high-school graduates by a million dollars.

In the workplace, boosting productivity nowadays means boosting workforce skills in addition to improving technology. As Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen pointed out to a major economic summit in summer 2016, "improving our educational system" is an important precursor to future prosperity.

Yet our K-12 education system has never gotten more than one-third of young Americans to the "college-ready" level by the end of the 12th grade. Twenty percent drop out before finishing high school, and of the rest only about two in five graduate with the reading and math skills that equip them to take credit-bearing college courses.

That might be acceptable if only a third of young Americans aspired to college and there were ample decent jobs for those who did not. But surveys consistently show that the overwhelming majority of U.S. kids plan to go to college (though not necessarily four-year college). Their parents expect this, too, and both children and parents believe that students are on track to gain entry to and to succeed in college. While many families worry about the cost of college, a 2016 survey by Learning Heroes found that 90% of parents with children in grades K-8 were fairly certain that their kids are at or above grade level in math and reading and are on track academically to succeed in the next school grade. Sixty-two percent worry little, not much, or not at all that their offspring will be well prepared for higher education — and just 19% "worry a lot" about this. (Given a list of worries, parents ranked college readiness ninth, far behind emotional health, peer pressure, and the like.)

The kids are confident, too. Purposeful efforts to boost their positive feelings about themselves were all the rage in education circles a quarter-century ago — despite evidence of an inverse relationship between self-esteem and actual achievement — and those efforts seem to have had the intended effect. According to a 2014 Northeastern University survey, more than 80% of U.S. teens believe that a college degree is important to advancing their career goals, and they think it's important to pursue the career of their choice. Some 87% want eventually to earn such a degree, reports a 2015 YouthTruth poll. According to a 2016 report of a three-year survey of 58,000 new community-college entrants, 76% agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "I feel that I am on track to reach my academic goals at this college within my expected timeframe."

The reality, however, belies much of this self-confidence. While most high-school graduates do, in fact, head for some sort of college, the colleges do not view millions of these matriculants as qualified for credit-bearing courses in core subjects such as English, math, and science.

These students are admitted because the majority of U.S. two- and four-year colleges are open-admission institutions that, whether because it's their statutory mandate, their sense of mission, or their financial imperative, accept pretty much all who apply. And thanks to widespread availability of financial aid — federal grants and especially loans being by far the largest source — and costs that are still relatively manageable on most campuses due to state subsidies, local taxpayers, and generous donors, few students are deterred by net-price considerations. (Price certainly affects which colleges they choose, however, and whether they enroll full or part time.)

Enrolling in an affordable college is not, however, the same as registering for college-level courses, the kind that actually accumulate credits toward those remunerative degrees. Instead, vast numbers of arriving students are routed into remedial classes — more often now called "developmental" — to gain the skills and knowledge (and perhaps the study habits) that they didn't bring from high school. In the California State University system, about half of incoming freshmen require remedial coursework in English or math. In California's community colleges, a staggering 85% of new students are sent to remedial math.

The same trends are visible across the country. The Ohio Board of Regents reports that 32% of new entrants to public colleges and universities in the Buckeye State in fall 2014 "required remediation" in English or math, and 10% needed both.

In Maryland (where I sit on the State Board of Education), 11th graders must now take one of several college-readiness tests so that they can, if necessary, do "remedial" work during their senior year before they even head for campus. Baltimore expects this requirement to snare at least half of its students, while the surrounding suburbs are projecting 40%. In upscale Montgomery County, my colleague Michael Petrilli has described "the heart-breaking situation at Montgomery College, the county's enterprising and generally well-regarded community college, where almost 80 percent of students coming straight from high school must take remedial math — and where more than half of students never make it past remediation."

None of this is new information. For years now, the College Board, the American College Testing program, and, more recently, the National Assessment of Educational Progress have supplied data indicating that the percentage of 12th graders (or 12th-grade test-takers) who are truly ready for college coursework is somewhere below 40. For African-American and Latino students, it's markedly worse: hovering around 10% to 25%.

Yet off to college they go. About 70% matriculate immediately after high school, a rate close to (or more than) double the extent of their academic preparedness.

That lofty rate of college entrance could nevertheless be a good thing if our colleges, especially our community colleges, were good at remediating kids. But they are not. Despite the billions of dollars that post-secondary institutions — and aid providers — expend on remedial or "developmental" instruction, the great majority of students who begin their college experience that way never make it into credit-bearing courses, much less attain a degree. Only 20% in two-year institutions or 36% in four-year colleges complete the requisite remedial coursework in math and English. Only 17% overall ultimately graduate. Among low-income students who start community college in remedial courses, the success rate is a scandalous 10%. Instead of exiting college with a marketable credential, they depart with debt and dejection, 20-year-old college dropouts.

CRIMINALLY MISLED

What is responsible for this gap in student expectations and educational reality? It appears that students and their parents are being systematically misled — even lied to — throughout their school years. Every point of evaluation in the K-12 system tells students that they are doing fine in school. Teachers give them good grades — often honors grades — on their report cards. (The average high-school GPA is about 3.0, or a "B.") Parent-teacher conferences consist mainly of assurances. They often sound something like this: "Sonia is doing really well in fifth grade. Of course, she could work a little harder in social studies and raise her 'B' to an 'A'. But she's outstanding in math and music. I don't see any problems ahead." If a child's pediatrician ignored the warning signs for asthma or incipient diabetes and told his parents that everything was fine, the family would accuse him of malpractice and find a new doctor. And they would intervene far more forcefully in their child's life.

But getting a second opinion about a child's college prospects is not so easy. Until recently, even state standardized tests routinely lied. For decades, states and districts deployed tests that were "normed" such that the average score of, say, fifth graders taking them was deemed to be "fifth-grade-level" work. But that score had nothing to do with whether they had mastered the fifth-grade curriculum, had attained a fifth-grade standard, or were well prepared for academic success in sixth grade — much less on track for success after graduation. It was nothing more than the score attained by the average student.

That bit of folly led to profoundly misleading state reporting of academic performance, which was memorably skewered by a West Virginia doctor named John Cannell in the late 1980s in two studies that swiftly became known as the "Lake Wobegon Reports," after Garrison Keillor's mythical town where "all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." District after district was reporting to its public, Cannell demonstrated (and expert analysts later confirmed), that most of its pupils were scoring "above average" or above "grade level." (On norm-referenced tests, these mean the same thing.) Both statements, taken to scale, are obviously mathematically impossible.

While the assessments have improved, the score reports going home to parents are still misleading. Today's tests are tougher and more honest — and the academic standards with which they're aligned are notably more rigorous than yesteryear's. And for all the furor about the "Common Core," a welcome outcome of the recent round of improvements in state standards is that young people who actually master them will be prepared for college-level academics.

That does not, however, mean the "passing score" on these new tests — the level of performance that a youngster must attain to be deemed ready for promotion to the next grade or to receive a diploma — is equally rigorous. Take, for example, a demanding, standards-aligned test graded on a 100-point scoring system, where a score of 90 or better denotes true mastery of the standards and readiness for the next year's curriculum. State education officials, scared by the prospect that half or more of their students might be held back or denied a diploma, then decide that a score of 70 or 80 qualifies them to move ahead. The standards are fine, the test is fine, but the actual performance that a student is required to demonstrate on that test does not amount to true readiness. If this pattern is repeated for the same student, grade after grade, it would ultimately yield a high-school diploma that is equivalent to mastery of eighth-grade standards, if that.

Yet even when the "cut scores" (the point selected on the scale above which students pass and below which they fail) on these improved state tests are set at the level of bona fide readiness for the next grade, the results of a child's test performance are apt to be reported to his parents (and himself) in misleading terms. Especially in the primary and middle grades, the score reports sent home by the state or district conveying results from the latest standardized test are cagey as to whether one's child is "on track" for college. They don't lie, exactly, but they're evasive and hard to parse without an advanced degree of one's own. And since they often arrive long after the school year is concluded, long after the child's reassuring report card and cheery teacher comments were reviewed at the kitchen table, and long after learning that he will indeed be promoted to the next grade in school, how seriously is one to take a cryptic test report from a distant state or superintendent's office? It makes little sense to panic when there is every other reason to believe that one's child is doing just fine.

The misleading practices continue in high school. For example, there has been a push to widen access to Advanced Placement classes to all who might want to set foot in them, regardless of whether students are prepared to succeed (and tackle the demanding AP exams that come at year's end). The laudable intent is to encourage more poor and minority students to gain the benefits associated with the AP program, but one must ask how much they benefit from sitting in the class if they can't pass the test (the research is mixed at best). One must also ask whether it harms the truly prepared students in those classes — the strivers — to be joined by the strugglers.

As students get older, state officials also become more squeamish about explicitly linking tougher standards to the real world. Even Massachusetts, the state with the highest achievement in education, has never had the intestinal fortitude to make its prerequisite for obtaining a high-school diploma as rigorous as what is required for admission to its selective colleges, or for entry into credit-bearing courses on its non-selective campuses. No state could tolerate the political cost of withholding diplomas from all who are unready for college. Instead, therefore, a high-school diploma denotes only that a person has completed the required high-school courses with passing grades (or otherwise obtained credit for those courses) and, in about 25 states, that the person has met the designated "cut score" on a graduation test or navigated one of the other routes that states offer those who cannot pass the test. Given that most students plan to pursue some kind of post-secondary education, this kind of diploma may help them as a necessary credential, but it is certainly not sufficient to certify they are ready for their next step; indeed, it is coming to mean less and less.

States and districts are under intense pressure from Washington, from major philanthropies such as the Gates Foundation, from civil-rights groups, from employers, and from public opinion to boost their high-school graduation rates — and indeed most have done so. Although U.S. scores on stable external metrics such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress and the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development's Programme for International Student Assessment remain essentially flat, by various gauges the graduation rate has indeed risen. Eighty-two percent of the class of 2014 received diplomas within four years of entering high school, up nine percentage points since 2006.

The campaign to lift that rate is closely linked to the push to get more young people into college, especially more poor and minority students. A praiseworthy goal, of course, but one that invites finagling of data and grade inflation. Many school systems have moved to make it harder to fail by, for instance, banning any grades below 50% and encouraging teachers to count "good faith effort" as well as actual achievement when calculating a student's marks. At the high-school level, recent years have seen the spread of a dubious practice known as "credit recovery," whereby young people who fail to complete required courses may retrieve the missing credits by taking online courses and kindred options that may or may not be equivalent in rigor and content to the ordinary courses that they finessed or flunked. One might say that many schools are bending over backwards to conceal failure while others go through the motions of remediating their own students in order to send them on to colleges where — sadly — far too many will again be remediated.

Millions of struggling students move through school sincerely believing — along with their parents, grandparents, and other caregivers — that they are on track for college and the blessings that a degree will confer. The truth, however, is that they are more likely on track toward a year or two of tuition payments for courses that carry no degree credit, a high probability of dropping out of college, and a sizable load of debt that sticks with them after they creep away from the ivy gates. They were misled for years, and many will suffer the consequences.

None of the adults in the K-12 system will suffer adverse consequences, however. Like doctors who think they are helping their patients by prescribing opiates, teachers don't imagine that they are contributing to grade inflation or false expectations. To the contrary, as they inscribe those As and Bs on kids' report cards, they're encouraging and rewarding their students for earnest effort, good behavior, and acceptable performance. They and those who lead their schools, districts, and states feel that they were kind, just, and supportive to all their pupils, that they opened doors and created opportunities, that they faithfully adhered to public policies and liberal declarations that everyone should complete high school and go to college — and that any subsequent educational mishaps are surely not their responsibility.

Along the way, however, they've also managed to advance their own interests, for all the misleading information (and downright lies) that K-12 has been propagating has benefited the very people doing the lying. They will get plaudits for their students' impressive grade point averages as well as their schools' lofty graduation and college-matriculation rates. (A coveted high-school boast is that "all of last year's graduates were accepted by institutions of higher education.") And they won't be hassled by parents demanding to know why their children are not on track for college or by taxpayers, elected officials, and employers upset that their schools' graduation rates are sagging and their graduates' college-going rates are flat-lining.

A MISSION OF REMEDIATION

Since it is unlikely that K-12 educators are going to change their ways in light of all this, it's up to higher education to tell the hard truths. But the colleges haven't been honest either, at least not until their new students arrive on campus and take their placement tests. Community colleges in particular have been unwilling to be forthright about the level of prior achievement needed to be successful and have a solid prospect of earning a credential. Instead, they highlight their "open-access mission" and invite in anyone with a high-school diploma (and many without it), including those whose reading and math skills are at a middle-school level.

Why this collegiate complicity in the lie? Remediation has become part of the mission, the business model, and the revenue stream of non-elite colleges and universities. There's no incentive to end it, particularly when doing so would bring charges (not entirely unfounded) of limiting students' chances to prove themselves while discriminating against poor and minority young people who are not at fault if their previous schools did a crummy job of educating them. Moreover, because the majority of U.S. colleges — beginning but by no means ending with community colleges — are meant to be (or for economic reasons have evolved into) "open-access" institutions, they have absolutely no reason to turn away ill-prepared applicants who can, one way or another, pay for what the college is selling. It's not really their fault if students drop by the wayside. After all, unlike K-12, post-secondary education is voluntary. Those who opt into it are thought to be responsible adults, and there would be an uproar nowadays if colleges attempted to function in loco parentis.

Imagine, though, what would happen if community colleges closed their honesty gap, and admitted only those who could succeed in credit-bearing courses, either because they are already at the "college-ready" level or because they are close enough that they can probably succeed with a little extra help. Imagine what would happen if non-selective public and private four-year colleges did the same thing. That doesn't mean they'd start to select among their qualified applicants, but they'd be upfront about who is and isn't qualified on the basis of prior academic preparation.

Setting a firm standard would tell high schools, in effect, "you can give a diploma to anyone you want, but they can't come to college without evidence that they're ready to do the work here." If all colleges cooperated, it could lead to a revolution in K-12 education. High schools would likely need to confer two kinds of diplomas, one signifying course completion, the other college readiness. This would seem to create a double standard, to be sure, but it would be more honest and ultimately more beneficial to all concerned. And it would not be unprecedented. For decades, New York state conferred "Regents diplomas" on those who displayed solid academic performance while districts offered their own version of diplomas to students who took the courses but could not, or opted not to, pass the Regents exams. After several cycles of policy change, today's Regents diploma is the default, but there are also "advanced" Regents diplomas that are said to denote superior academic attainment and that get preferential treatment at a number of colleges.

"On track for college" may be the wrong criterion for promotion from third to fourth or eighth to ninth grade, just as true college readiness ought not to be the only basis for obtaining a high-school diploma. But papering over the truth about what a student is and is not ready for is immoral, even when rationalized as sustaining hope and preserving opportunity.

HONESTY AS POLICY

What America needs is a greater variety of opportunities and more legitimate paths (one might even say tracks) toward them. We need an honest, earnest acknowledgment that, while everyone should have the chance to make the most of themselves, "college for all" is the wrong mantra. And honesty is the best practice.

If colleges stopped admitting sorely unprepared students — or Washington curbed their access to financial aid — there would be an initial uproar, with cries of discrimination, narrowed opportunity, and fresh barriers to social mobility. A number of colleges would lose enrollment and some — especially community colleges, but also some private colleges, including a number of "historically black" campuses — would shrink. At least a handful would likely close. Hard times would also befall many of the for-profit colleges that have enriched their owners with the help of federal (and other) aid to underprepared students. (The Obama administration has already crippled or closed some of the worst offenders.)

At the K-12 level, in the near term, there would be widespread unhappiness with high schools, some of whose graduates could no longer gain admission to college, and that unhappiness would reverberate into middle and elementary schools that have been promoting students willy-nilly. But those schools, too, need to be part of the solution, not just by preparing their pupils more effectively but also by advising parents — in those annual test-score reports, of course, but also in teacher conferences, quarterly report cards, and other bulletins — as to the kinds of colleges that their kids are or are not on track for. States should mandate such truth-telling and ensure that their own annual test-score reports are clear as well as informative. They should do this not only for individual pupils but also for entire schools, thereby revealing which schools are guilty of inflating student grades by conferring honors marks on children who are way off track for what follows.

Because of the widespread consternation and disruption that would result, such a scenario is highly unlikely. But before we dismiss it entirely, consider the good we would achieve if we could endure the short-term pain. We'd see greater seriousness about academic standards and achievement throughout the system and a lot more truth-telling. Fewer people would drop out of college, dejected and burdened by loans they cannot realistically pay back. More young Americans would truly be prepared for good jobs, economic success, upward mobility, and full participation in 21st-century life in a post-industrial economy. The country would be more competitive, too.

Much money would be saved by students and taxpayers alike, as the costs of remediation plummet and the number of defaulted government loans shrinks. Although college enrollment would likely decline, the savings that result could be directed into reducing its costs for those who do matriculate. While the Clinton free-college plan is unlikely to happen anytime soon, smart use of these savings could go a long way toward making college more affordable for everyone.

We could also — as her running mate, Virginia senator Tim Kaine, the son of an ironworker, urged — supply more quality career-technical opportunities than exist today. It would be wise to replace the push for universal college attendance with an education system that delivers high-quality technical education in addition to preparation for college. As in much of Europe and in some Asian countries, clear, proven paths would lead through the middle- and high-school years into strong, intellectually challenging, career-preparation options. Those would span secondary and post-secondary education, as well as employer-based and apprenticeship-style training. Appropriate credentials would follow, as would crossover paths for those who change their plans or aspirations.

Everyone supports "high standards" in principle. In reality, however, it's painful and unrewarding to convey bad news about kids, and far easier to pass the buck while hiding behind an ideology of universality, opportunity, and second chances. It's high time that all who have been complicit in this illusion admit that it's not working, at least not for the kids who most need it to. Opportunity and aspiration are commendable. Dishonesty is not. 

Chester E. Finn, Jr., is distinguished senior fellow and president emeritus at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former assistant U.S. secretary of education for research and improvement.