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Education Studies Question 'College-Readiness'

March 31, 2011
SHSU Media Contact: Jennifer Gauntt

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John Slate and Wally Barnes
In their three studies, John Slate and Wally Barnes (from left) determined not only are students not "college-ready" but that there is a conflict in what the state considers "college-ready" and what they see as a professor and the director of the SHSU Reading Center, respectively.

In 2008 three researchers from Sam Houston State University’s educational leadership and counseling department reported that less than one-third of all Texas high school students graduate were prepared for college.

In the three years since then, another team has followed those results for what they say is the first trend study of “college preparedness,” and what they found is that a stark difference exists between “college readiness” and “academic preparedness.”

Further, broad cuts to education being proposed by state legislatures nationwide could widen this gap even further, they say.

The ideas of “college-readiness” and “academic preparedness” and the “current state of affairs” of college readiness are compared in the first two studies written by educational leadership and counseling professor John R. Slate, SHSU Reading Center director Wally Barnes and Reading Center literacy specialist Ana Rojas-LeBouef.

“What Wally and I argue is that how Texas defines readiness—and it’s pretty much how the country defines college readiness—is not college readiness. We think it’s a misrepresentation,” Slate said. “How we’re currently defining college readiness is really academic preparedness, and only academic preparedness in reading and math as opposed to a comprehensive academic preparedness.”

College readiness, they said, should include factors other than just math and verbal scores on the SAT, ACT or Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills tests. These factors include social preparation through such things as financial education, study skills and more emphasis on reading and writing skills.

Barnes said this is not only evident through their research but through his experiences as director of the SHSU Reading Center and the developmental reading program.

“Professors invite me to present reading strategies to their classes because they find their students can’t read or write well enough,” he said. “Last fall I did 65 presentations, and this spring I’ll do 25. I’ll do 90 presentations and touch probably 3,000 students.”

“For the most part, he’s doing this for students who have met the college readiness standards,” Slate added.

But even looking solely at math and verbal scores, the state isn’t doing so well, according to the multi-year statistical study conducted by Slate and Barnes as part of Barnes’ doctoral dissertation. These findings will be presented to the American Education Research Association at a conference in April.

Using data released by the Texas Education Agency, the two documented that for the school years 2006-2007 and 2007-2008, less than one-third of all students in the state of Texas were deemed “college-ready,” that is, earning a score of 2200 or more on the TAKS test, earning a composite score of 1070 or more on the SAT, or earning a 23 or higher composite score on the ACT (including only math and verbal scores for all three tests). Students can be “college ready” in math, verbal or both. These percentages indicate those students who met criteria for both subjects.

Demographically, that breaks down to approximately 17-19 percent of black, 22-24 percent of Hispanic, and 39-41 percent of white students who were deemed “college ready” based on these scores over the course of both school years.

“And this is after the high drop out rates for Hispanic and black students,” Barnes said. “So with that percent gone, we still have less than a third ready for college.

“The Hispanic rate certainly ought to be a concern for us because they are the fastest-growing group in the state of Texas,” he said.

For the 2008-2009 school year—the most recent data available—the numbers grew in all fields, to 27.3 percent black, 32.8 percent Hispanic and 48.84 percent white students who were “college ready” based on test scores, and an overall average of 39.42 percent.

But there is an explanation for this 9 percent increase, according to Barnes.

“What happened with the large increase—and 9 percent is a fairly large increase—is when states see certain measures and they’re looking at their No Child Left Behind and annual yearly progress (figures), they sometimes lower the cutoff score,” Barnes said. “In other words, they lower the score for students to be successful, so more students are successful.”

“So while the score may remain the same, the number of questions to get that score may change,” Slate explained. “States have a tendency to play with the data to make the schools look good.”

“Punitive accountability measures” set forth by No Child Left Behind are among the factors for the school rankings of “exemplary,” “recognized,” “acceptable” or “low-performing” in Texas.

Texas is one of the few states that requires school districts to report college-readiness numbers each year.

“Really and truly Texas, in how we describe college readiness, is probably in line with most states,” Barnes said. “Unfortunately, what they’ve done is sort of leading the way, because we have not joined a lot of consortiums that other states have joined because we’re ahead of them, but I think we need to look at more than merely standardized test scores and numbers to determine college readiness.

“The numbers and what we look at now show academic preparedness. Yes, they can do pretty well in their academics, but going to college and being successful is more than knowing math and history and science; students should have to have a grasp on the real things that matter like writing and reading and being able to study, financial planning and social skills, and many students don’t have that,” he said.

“For many students who leave college, it has nothing to do with academics. To function in the college landscape requires social preparedness, adeptness at finances, many things.”

Slate said their goals for these studies aren’t to be overly critical of schools, and that it can even be argued that institutions of higher education could do more. He pointed out that SHSU has one of the few Student Money Management Centers in the country, whose goal is to spread financial literacy.

“I think most of what happens in public schools and colleges is really on a policy level from the state legislatures and the federal government,” Barnes said. “We’re looking at more than schools. The schools are bound by certain guidelines and regulations. They’re doing the best they can do with what they have.”

The implications of these kinds of studies are that “we need to be doing a better job,” Slate said.

“We think our research is particularly relevant because of the Obama administration’s push for career and college readiness and away from the strong punitive measures of No Child Left Behind to more of a focus to getting students ready for college,” he said. “We think the administration’s push is good, we think our data can point out that we need to be doing more.”

Things such as a state task force that could analyze the strategies of schools that are doing a particularly good job or why schools are doing a poor job, measure study skills, social maturity and financial awareness to have a broader index of what being ready for college actually is would be beneficial. Above all, a policy change is needed.

“I think if we wish for the United States to remain competitive around the world, we need to prepare our students, as Barack Obama said, to be college and career ready,” he said, adding that part of that is recognizing that community college and trade schools are the better alternative for some students. “Asia and Europe produce three-to-six times as many engineers as we do. If our kids are leaving high school and aren’t college ready, they’re not likely to graduate from college, which reduces our ability to compete.

“Ultimately it’s an economic issue that is going to affect each and every one of us,” he said. “On the individual level, are we really doing these kids justice if we’re not preparing them for a career or for college enrollment?”


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