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By Carol Frey
Crash Course in Preparedness: Start sharpening your analytical skills early, and don't shy from a challenging read
If colleges could shine a light inside the brains of high school students, they would be looking for synapses well prepared to grapple with math, science, and literature. But all too often today, what colleges would see would disappoint them.
Many students are arriving on campus with few tools to succeed. Of the high school students in the class of 2009 who took the ACT test, for example, fewer than one quarter met each of the benchmarks for college readiness in math, science, English, and reading. Just over a quarter met none of them. In a 10-year study of students, those who did meet the benchmarks had higher college grade point averages, completed their freshman courses, and had a significantly greater chance of graduating, according to Cynthia Schmeiser, president of ACT's education division. Those who didn't meet the benchmarks fared worse on all counts. "The colleges receiving the most applications can afford to be more selective, and readiness isn't a predominant issue," Schmeiser says. "It's the less selective schools that are confronting the readiness problem."
Even those B students who take all the college prep courses required for high school graduation can end up on campus in need of remedial classes in reading, writing, math, or all three, says David Spence, president of the Southern Regional Education Board. The problem, says Spence, is that college professors expect students to have more analytical skills than fact-heavy high school courses provide. What's more, educators don't agree on how high school classes should be taught differently. "We have to get higher education to speak with one voice on standards," says Spence, who collaborated with the National Center on Public Policy and Higher Education on a new report that calls for state standards of college readiness. Indeed, a coalition of 48 states is working on a nationwide set of core curriculum standards, and the Obama administration's Blueprint for Education Reform has raised the bar, advocating a new goal of requiring that all high school graduates by the year 2020 be "college and career ready" (story, Page 30).
But educators do agree on the courses students should take in high school: four years of English at the college-preparation level; four years of science including two lab sciences; four years of social sciences such as history and economics; and, increasingly, four years of math. "If you take a year off from math, when you take your college math placement exam, you could find yourself in a remedial class that doesn't qualify for financial aid or count toward graduation," warns Jacqueline King, who directs the
More reading. Even in the right college prep classes, today's students may need to push themselves to develop critical-thinking skills. Work on reading and understanding--early and often, experts advise. There will be more reading in college, and more complicated reading, than you might expect. When college professors and employers were surveyed a few years ago by the policy research group Achieve about how prepared high school graduates were for college and work, 70 percent of professors (and 41 percent of employers) said students' inability to read and understand complicated material was a serious deficiency.
Gaining that ability requires reading lots of tough material, right through senior slump time and over the summer. "Colleges' lists of must-read books are remarkably similar," says Mark Conley, an associate professor of teacher education at
"They don't need to buy 60 Ways to Improve Vocabulary," says Carol Jago, president of the
Also pay attention to how these books are written, says
Budding scientists must hone their literacy and analytical thinking skills, too. "They need to read at the level of Scientific American and the science section of the
Many academics suspect that misuse and overuse of technology is partly responsible for the decline in college readiness. Though the Internet is a valuable tool, for example, it's just as easy for students to use it the wrong way in academic research and writing as it is to use it effectively.
One example of the right way is to give the information in a carefully reviewed scholarly journal greater weight than that found in the public contributions to Wikipedia online, says Jacob Vigdor, a
College readiness also includes having self-restraint and the ability to make hard decisions about priorities. Chelsea Crane of Montgomery, Texas, was faced with many tough choices as a freshman in 2009 at
Fortunately for her and others like her,
As Crane discovered, the wise student is one who doesn't hesitate to seek out help on campus. An even wiser one, many would agree, starts the journey with some curiosity and critical thinking long before freshman year.
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