Thursday, May 17, 2007

The Dilution of Education

Yesterday (May 16, 2007) in Inside Higher Education an article "‘College Prep’ Without ‘College’ or ‘Prep’" discussed the lack of rigour in college preparatory classes in high school. The article cited a study by ACT that found that
"Nearly half of ACT-tested 2005 graduates who earned an “A” or a “B” in an algebra II class were not ready for a first-year college math course;"
One of the main contentions of the article was that the recommended core college preparatory curriculum – at least four years of English, and three of math, science and social studies -- is not sufficient to prepare most students for college, at least as measured by ACT scores. However, the point I found most intriguing was this one
Yet, not only can the number of courses taken be misleading, so too can the content, pointed out Chrys Dougherty, director of research at the National Center of Educational Accountability. For instance, when students enter algebra I unprepared, the teacher may adjust the instruction to a lower level accordingly. All the sudden it’s not Algebra I even more — although a student’s transcript might record an “A” in the subject. “What they essentially have,” Dougherty said Tuesday, “is orange drink in cartons labeled orange juice.”
You see, I know all about pouring orange drink into orange juice containers. I teach a statistics course at a community college. The course is a 200 or sophomore level course, that has a prerequisite of college algebra. Yet when I give a diagnostic test on the first day of this course I discover that the majority of my students cannot do any problems involving percentages nor can they convert fractions to decimals (something usually taught in elementary or middle school), and that less than twenty percent have even the most basic understanding of simple linear equations (taught in elementary algebra in high school, a foundation for College algebra that all my students must complete before taking my class).

Because my students come to me unprepared, I find that I must spend a significant amount of time teaching them to do things like take percentages, and work with linear equations, rather than teaching them about as much as they should know about correlation, regression, and significance testing. While my students know substantially more about math and statistics when they leave my class than when they entered, even those with an "A" grade know less about statistics than what the official content of the course says they should know. Moreover, I know that they know substantially less about statistics than I did when I finished a 200 level statistics class, at a community college in California in Fall 1974. A class that prepared me so well, that I breezed through my graduate statistics course in the spring of 1975 without having to do more than show up and take the exams.

Elite colleges and colleges are able to skim the cream off the high school crop by taking only those with the highest ACT and SAT scores. Even state universities have minimum entrance requirements, leaving those students who need remediation to the community colleges which must take all high school graduates regardless of their level of preparation for college.

When I attended community college in California, during 1973 and 1975, after having graduated from the highly selective Oberlin College, I found little difference in the course content of Oberlin classes and community college classes. Today, I believe that a huge gulf has opened up between the content found in many community college courses and like courses in elite institutions. This applies less to courses that are tied to specific careers in the health sciences where students must pass national licensing examinations.

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