How Can Students Get Better At Something They’re Never Asked To Do?

There’s been a lot of talk lately of college- and career-readiness for high-school graduates, notes Amanda Paulson in the Christian Science Monitor. But according to a just-released study, what community colleges actually require is less rigorous than we think—and many high school graduates aren’t meeting even those low standards:

“Community colleges enroll nearly half of all college students in America, and are often a gateway both to four-year colleges and to vocational education. Thus, zeroing in on what’s needed for success at community colleges makes sense, says Marc Tucker, an author of the report. ‘We’re talking about the preparation of people who are absolutely crucial to the future,’ says Tucker.

Among the report’s findings, which looked at both math and English literacy:

• First-year community college students need to know fairly little math – and what they do need to know is mostly taught in middle-school math courses: arithmetic, ratio, proportion, expressions, and simple equations. Most high school graduates, however, don’t know it well. The typical college algebra course could be characterized as about the level of Algebra 1.25 – Algebra I and a few topics from geometry and statistics.

• Many community college courses require students to take complex measurements and to read schematic drawings and charts – concepts that aren’t taught at all in most high schools.

• In English literacy, most community-college texts were at an 11th- or 12th-grade level—but most students had not been reading texts at that level in high school, and were unable to analyze or comprehend them with any depth.

• Little writing is required in first-year community college courses, even though it’s an essential skill in many workplaces. A primary reason that faculty ask college students to write so little is that their writing skills are poor, and they did little writing in high school.

Clearly, says Tucker, standards are too low in both high school and community colleges if students are to be prepared for the careers they eventually hope to have.

‘Because our workforce will have less skills than they need, it’s a bad sign for the American economy,’ he says. ‘And it’s also a bad sign for the individuals involved – they’re confident that when they get their degree or certificate they’ll know what they need, and it turns out that’s not true.’” (Read more here.)

The saddest sentence in this generally dismaying report is the line about how the reason that college faculty ask college students to write so little “is that their writing skills are poor.”

Of course, practice—with constructive feedback—is how people get better at anything, and it appears that many American students are not getting this kind of practice in writing at any point in their education.

4 Responses to “How Can Students Get Better At Something They’re Never Asked To Do?”

  1. “In English literacy, most community-college texts were at an 11th- or 12th-grade level—but most students had not been reading texts at that level in high school, and were unable to analyze or comprehend them with any depth.”

    And so the solution is to have them read what they can’t read, more? Hmmm…..

    Ditto for the writing. They need elementary level writing instruction, such as paragraph construction skills, and subject-verb agreement. Only, you can’t assign that, because they’re supposed to be able to do it.

    If you’re not an English teacher, you can’t instruct them in writing, because you’re supposed to be teaching content, instead. The standard is that you can only take 15% of the grade to account for the actual writing — the rest of the paper has to be graded on content.

    There’s no rule that says they have to be able to write at a minimum level (or read at a minimum level) to be able to enroll in open-admissions schools. Likewise, there’s no rule that says they have to pass their English classes before they take other classes. So, as a non-English teacher, it’s too painful to read all that pathetic stuff — and you can’t grade them on it anyway! Why would you assign something so useless?!

  2. In Australia all teachers are teachers of literacy and numeracy. Its everyone’s job. If you’re a teacher, just do it.

  3. Fabiana Casella says:

    Here in Argentina, “education”, especially in secondary schools, is under some re-construction. In our last teacher´s meeting, we all agreed that it doesn´t matter what subject you teach, you have to require students to know how to write, spell, capitalize, punctuate correctly and appropriately. Writing comes from reading: the more you read, the better you write. Your vocabulary grows, and through visual memory you learn to spell better too.

  4. Susan says:

    Actually, completion of developmental English courses IS a pre-requisite for many credit courses. Completion of developmental math courses, ditto.

    It’s a funny thing, but writing helps focus thinking. Something may sound reasonable when you say it, but writing it down makes errors in reasoning glaringly obvious. It also shows when a student is overly verbose without introducing any additional ideas. In many cases, the inability to write clearly indicates incomplete knowledge. Grading student essays is time consuming, but necessary.

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