AISR Speaks Out: Commentary on Urban Education
Ensuring College Readiness for All NYC Students
Postsecondary education is increasingly necessary to prepare young people to reach their full potentials as adults. Although New York City’s public schools are graduating more students and more of them are going on to college, high rates of remedial course-taking and low graduation rates indicate a need to improve academic preparation, enhance college access services, promote more effective transitions into college and provide more supportive environments in postsecondary institutions.
Are New York Citys Public Schools Preparing Students for Success in College? addresses four key questions about college readiness and concludes with some observations about building a readiness system.
How should we think about being ready for college?
Readiness should be linked with student aspirations so that students have an opportunity to meet the admissions requirements for the colleges and programs in the fields of study they're interested in. At bottom, this means that they need to have taken the right kind of courses.
But they also need something more. They need to have had an “intellectually coherent” experience that enables them to acquire the complementary knowledge, skills and habits of mind that will enable them to take full advantage of a college education.
Are New York City’s public high school graduates ready for college?
In fall 2008, over 90 percent of New York City’s graduating students met the City University of New York (CUNY) recommendations for four years of college prep coursework in English – while just over 19 percent did so in math.
The graph below shows results on CUNY’s basic skills proficiency tests of recent public school graduates entering CUNY baccalaureate and associate degree programs in fall 2008. More than 15 percent of baccalaureate enrollees and more than 70 percent of associate degree enrollees were not considered initially proficient in basic skills; these students are required to take one or more non-credit remedial/developmental courses in order to move on to the first-level credit courses in math and English. There are frequently other required courses that students are not allowed to take until they have exited remediation.
An indication of the significance of the relationship between remediation and likely success in college is demonstrated in an analysis of the six-year graduation rates for associate degree enrolling in fall 2001 with different remedial needs, as shown in the graph below. The significance is heightened by the fact that over 60% percent of CUNY students are in associate degree programs.
College faculty and staff interviewed for this research emphasized that students were often not familiar with or acclimated to the procedural and cultural aspects of college-level work: the importance of “close” readings of texts, assignments requiring innovative response, and the intensity of the work they might need to do. As a result, students were frequently “surprised” – by having to take remedial courses, by what they were assigned to do – and they often became frustrated and angry.
While additional research into the relationship between high school achievement and college performance is needed, it appears evident that far too many graduates of the city’s public schools are not succeeding in college because of what they did not accomplish in high school.
Is the college readiness system adequate?
At the present time, there is no real college readiness system; i.e., an intentionally organized set of policies, organizational structures, and supports designed to ensure that as many young people as possible successfully make the transition from high school to college and go on to earn a postsecondary credential.
However, there are encouraging developments. The New York City Department of Education (DOE) is attaching significantly greater importance to postsecondary readiness and has acknowledged the need to enhance its work in that area. CUNY has a long track record of working with the public schools to promote student readiness for college. Finally, a number of programs by organizations loosely or not affiliated with DOE or CUNY are providing services to students and schools that enhance college readiness. These efforts, while promising, are currently limited in scale and only reach a portion of high school students who need them.
What should be done?
The report offers the following recommendations to promote a coherent and comprehensive college readiness system.
High-Quality and Readily Available Information
Students and parents need easy access to high-quality information that could be provided by opportunities to visit college classrooms, to take college-level courses, to read through course descriptions, to try out assignments, to talk with faculty and students.
High school teachers must be familiar with the kinds of challenges their students will face when they go on to college and become able to design developmentally appropriate content and assignments so that students can acquire the knowledge and skills they need.
Clear Signals Regarding Readiness
Students, parents, and school staff need a practical way to assess how well the courses students are taking and the grades they are earning are keeping them on the pathway to college. A College Readiness Index would be helpful.
The process by which Regents exams are constructed and scored needs to be as transparent and clear as possible so that everyone who has a stake in the outcomes of the exams understands what different scores mean and, more specifically, what scores really do signal college readiness.
Enhanced College Advisement and Supports
The quality of college-access work must be enhanced. The DOE should consider establishing a college counselor position in high schools, with funding earmarked for that purpose. While professional staff members have distinct responsibilities, it would also be wise to understand that students themselves can play powerful roles as resources for each other. The work of Student Success Centers should be investigated as a possible model for student involvement.
Enhanced Academic Preparation
Nothing is more important for greater student success in college than higher levels of student achievement in high school. High schools must provide students with a robust program of core college preparatory courses and an array of appropriate opportunities to take advanced courses. This also requires the development of new and more powerful pathways for students who enter high school unprepared to do high quality high school work.
Attention to the Transition to College
No one is responsible for what happens between the moment when a student graduates from high school and when that student begins college. It is essential that a new model of college transition be developed and implemented. And that means that the colleges must also be held accountable.
Because it is increasingly clear that what happens when students actually start college has a very powerful effect on how well students do, we need “student-ready colleges” as much as we need “college-ready students.”
Building a College-Readiness System
The DOE and CUNY have taken a major step forward by establishing a College Readiness and Success Working Group. The two institutions have developed a comprehensive data-sharing agreement to allow for collaborative inquiry into the relationship between high school and college performance. The shared data will be most illuminating if they are examined at the right levels – levels of academic subjects and disciplines, of courses and departments, of schools and colleges – where teachers and faculty can do something to change things.
In all but a handful of the city’s public high schools, even the most accomplished school leaders do not appear to be well enough informed to do what is necessary to ensure that students are well prepared for college. The key challenge for DOE will be the extent to which centrally initiated efforts intended to address this challenge make their way into what might be considered the deep structure of the everyday life of high schools.
The agenda above is fairly ambitious. The need is great and the number of issues that need to be sorted out is large. The development of a system that is adequate to the task will not occur if it is left to chance. Therefore, we recommend the establishment of an expanded Citywide Working Group – composed of representatives of DOE, CUNY and other college institutions, the State Education Department, not-for-profit education groups, and community organizations – to conduct a thorough assessment of the current state of affairs, to draw upon the best of existing models and practices, and to develop recommendations for policies, procedures, inter-institutional cooperation, and (as necessary) new organizational forms.
Managing Editor, Annenberg Institute for School Reform