PA Coalition for World Class Math

Only 16 percent of Michigan high school graduates 'college ready' -Kalamazoo Gazette

by Julie Mack | Kalamazoo Gazette

Sunday August 09, 2009, 9:00 AM

KALAMAZOO -- Two-thirds of Michigan's new high school graduates are expected to start college in a few weeks.

That includes plenty of students with decent grade-point averages who consistently made the honor roll, easily passed the Michigan Merit Exam and qualified for the Michigan Promise scholarship. They gained admission to the college of their choice and are confident about their chances of academic success.

Yet only a fraction of the Class of 2009 are fully "college-ready," based on their ACT scores.

Only one in six -- 16 percent of the new graduates -- have a strong probability of obtaining a "C" or better in college English, social studies, algebra and biology, according to an analysis posted on a Michigan Department of Education Web site.

The vast majority of students will either need remediation or are at risk of failing a course during their freshman year of college.

"People should be concerned" by the numbers, said Penny Bundy, admissions director at Western Michigan University and a former ACT official. "The ACT assessments are very credible, they have longitudinal data to back it up, and they've looked at this issue again and again and again."

ACT officials say Michigan is not unique and that the numbers reflect a national problem of adequately preparing high school students for higher education.

Locally, 5,428 students in the Class of 2009 took the ACT at 37 public and three private high schools in the Kalamazoo region. Of those students, about 3,500 are expected to enter college this fall, but fewer than 900 tested as college-ready in all four core academic subjects.

Even at Kalamazoo Christian High School, with the highest college-readiness rate for the Class of 2009, less than half of the students hit all four ACT benchmarks. K-Christian educators said their students are well-prepared for college, and many have excelled at that level.

"You can't always go by what a test says," said K-Christian High School Principal Linda Dahnke. "It's not a natural indicator of who (students) are or what they can do."

At the other end of the rankings, Hartford High School's Class of 2009 had two students who are fully college-ready, out of 83 who took the ACT in March 2008.

Joseph Martineau, who oversees assessments for the state Department of Education, said the ACT results underscore the need for Michigan's new high school graduation requirements, which mandate that every student take algebra I and II, as well as chemistry or physics, starting with the Class of 2011.

In the next few years, "we should see significantly higher numbers" of Michigan students who score as college-ready as a result of the new curriculum, Martineau said.

"I do believe Michigan is on the right track," he said.

Still, he said, the current college-readiness numbers "certainly serve as a wake-up call. ... The take-away message from this is that we need to redefine what it means to be a high school graduate."

Is ACT measure valid?
Some local educators say the ACT analysis needs to be taken with a grain of salt.

"We have to be very cautious on how we analyze any one test result," said Mark Bielang, superintendent of Paw Paw Public Schools. "College readiness is much more complex than one test would show."

He points to his own son as an example. "My son wouldn't have qualified as a college-ready in math based on his ACT scores, but he just graduated from Ferris State," Bielang said. "He struggled through his math classes, but he graduated on time in four years."

ACT spokesman Ed Colby said the ACT's college-ready label is not meant to be definitive.

But he also said the benchmarks are based on actual success rates in college. By studying thousands of college students, the testing company determined the minimum ACT scores needed to give students a 75 percent chance of earning a "C" or better in each subject.

They found students need to score at least 18 out of 36 on the ACT English test to have a 75 percent chance of getting a "C" in freshman English composition at an "average" college. They also need a math score of 22 to pass college algebra; a science score of 24 to pass college biology, and a reading score of 21 to pass a college social-studies course.

"We're not saying that a student who scores under those benchmarks will definitely fail," Colby said. "It's based on probability."

The college-readiness rate appears to be particularly low in Michigan's largest and smallest school districts. Locally for two years running, a number of small, rural districts -- Constantine, Burr Oak, Bangor, Hartford, Bloomingdale, Martin, Decatur and Galesburg-Augusta -- have had fewer than 10 percent of their students test as college-ready in all four academic areas.

The numbers are even more dire in urban districts. Detroit Public Schools tested 4,840 students in March -- and only 100 tested as college-ready, 87 of whom came from two high schools. Of Flint's 830 test-takers, 16 were college-ready in all four academic subjects. With 11 percent of their students testing as college-ready, Kalamazoo Public Schools outperformed districts such as Lansing, Grand Rapids, Battle Creek and Saginaw.

Issues with college success
The validity of the ACT's low college-readiness rates is supported by other data indicating that many students enter college unprepared.

U.S. college enrollment is up 17 percent since 2000, according to a 2008 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, but college graduation rates remain stagnant, suggesting many students start college only to drop out. According to the National Center for Education Statistics:

• Sixty percent of community-college students and 25 percent of students entering a four-year college must take at least one remedial course.
• Forty percent of those who enter college immediately after high school do not have a degree six years later. That includes two-year degrees.
• The time it takes to earn a bachelor's degree now averages more than five years.

All three trends should trouble parents and students, especially at a time when college tuition costs are soaring.

Remedial classes, for instance, cost the same as regular college courses but do not earn credit toward graduation. Each additional year of college costs thousands of dollars in tuition and delays a person's ability to earn a professional wage. Dropping out of college is the most problematic: It can mean spending considerable time and money with little to show for it, since college dropouts tend to earn the same as people who never went to college.

Colby said ACT officials don't want to discourage students from enrolling in college. Rather, their college-readiness analysis is meant to evaluate a student's strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps that will encourage them to use their remaining time in high school to bolster their skills.

Bob Van Dis, curriculum director for Plainwell Community Schools and the father of three college students, said the ACT analysis gives students a realistic sense of what to expect in college.

"If you're scoring above those benchmarks, you're probably going to do well in college if you don't screw up and party too hard," he said. "Kids below those scores can certainly be successful, but they have to realize it is going to take some hard work, and they may have to take some remedial classes."

Bundy, the WMU admissions director, said there's some "wiggle room" in the ACT scores, and a student with a strong grade-point average is likely to have the work ethic to offset a specific skills deficit.

Still, she said, colleges are aware many students will need academic support in at least one subject and have programs in place to help them. But she also said there should be more emphasis on college-readiness as students move through the K-12 system.

Why kids are unprepared
So why aren't high school students better prepared for college?

"Our results show, consistently, that not enough students are taking the right courses, and they're not getting the skills they need to succeed in college even when they do take the right courses," Colby said.

In general, Colby said, college-bound students should take the most difficult courses they can handle, and they shouldn't slack off senior year even if they've fulfilled their school's graduation requirements. At minimum, ACT officials say, students should take four years of English and three years each of math, social studies and science, and students should take the advanced courses in those subjects.

But Colby acknowledged that ACT officials have found that even when students take advanced classes, they may not adequately prepare students for college work.

"One thing we see is that there's not a level playing field in terms of curriculum and strength of curriculum," Bundy said, talking about evaluating applications to WMU. "We see a vast difference between schools" in preparing students for college.

Yet Colby also says it's unfair to just point a finger at high-school educators. He cites a recent ACT study that found college success can be predicted by grades and test scores in eighth grade, which suggests a child's educational path is already set before high school.

"It's a process that backs up all the way to preschool and before," Colby said. "That means it's not a problem that's going to be solved overnight. We're not going to be able to transform high schools next year."

Making high school harder
Another issue is the disconnect between high schools and higher education.

Colby said high school curriculums tend to be "broad but not deep," while colleges would prefer high schools to concentrate on teaching essential skills rather than a wide swath of knowledge. Moreover, he said, state high school standards are often "derived without taking college standards into account."

That seems to be the case in Michigan.

In many respects, Michigan has been a national leader on K-12 reform. Former Gov. John Engler was one of the early proponents of education standards and accountability, and Gov. Jennifer Granholm has pushed through new high school graduation requirements that are among the toughest in the nation.

The mandate that every Michigan high school junior now must take the ACT as part of the Michigan Merit Exam also has been lauded by education-reform advocates.

Yet even in an administration that constantly beats the drum for higher standards, improved academic outcomes and making sure all students are college-ready, there is a disconnect between the state's high school standards and college readiness.

Consider, for instance, that 81 percent of Michigan juniors passed the social-studies test on the Michigan Merit Exam in March, but only 35 percent are deemed college-ready in social studies by the ACT's criteria. The Michigan Merit Exam passage rate on the 2009 math test was 49 percent, compared to 29 percent reported by ACT officials as college-ready in math.

"Proficiency on the Michigan Merit Exam doesn't guarantee that a student won't need to take a remedial course in college," said Martineau, the state education assessment director. "That's because the law says that proficiency means basic skills, which is different than college readiness."

But he said state Superintendent Michael Flanagan is considering changing the Michigan Merit Exam standards.

"He has said it's probably time to redefine what basic skills mean," particularly in a changing economy that requires a highly trained work force, Martineau said.

Mackenzie Fuqua, who graduated in June from Kalamazoo Central High School and is headed to Michigan State University, said high school needs to be harder.

Although Fuqua fits the ACT definition of a college-ready student, she said she's been worrying all summer about whether she's ready for college work. She said she knows plenty of friends who sailed through high school with high marks only to hit the academic wall in college. She's afraid that could happen to her.

"I didn't study at all in high school, so that's going to be a big thing," Fuqua said. "I have no study habits."