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In Preparing Students for College, a Struggle

Less than one in two Texas students met the state’s “college readiness” standards in math and verbal skills on the ACT, SAT and TAKS in 2010. And although the data shows that something is not going right, pinpointing why is difficult.

LVN program student Brittany Richmond studies at Austin Community College before class.

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The short answer to whether most Texas students leave public schools prepared for college? No.

Less than one in two students met the state’s “college readiness” standards in math and verbal skills on ACT, SAT and TAKS scores in 2010. Though average SAT scores in both verbal and math dropped between 2007 and 2010 — a trend that state education officials have attributed to an increase in students taking the test — more students in the same period of time have met the state’s standards for college ready graduates, largely because of improvements on their state standardized tests and the ACT.

But that increase is only a slim silver lining in what appears to be a large storm cloud.

“It’s still pathetic,” Dominic Chavez, a Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board spokesman, said of the ACT scores. “It’s still a very low number, and nobody is satisfied with it.”

Getting to a number that is satisfying is a task that policymakers, educators and the business community have grappled with for years. And although the current data shows that something is not going right, pinpointing why is difficult. Part of the trouble is that while it is easy to define what skills students need to be successful in college, so far the measures used to assess how they lack those skills have returned an incomplete picture.

Debates over lagging performance at community colleges and four-year institutions can devolve into finger-pointing between the higher education and K-12 camps, each blaming the other for students’ poor performance at the post-secondary level.

Because colleges are not good at gauging what remedial courses students need, some experts say, students fall through the cracks or give up because they are not progressing toward a degree. They cite the numbers who are “underplaced” in remediation because they did not take the placement exam seriously when they got to campus, or they have spent time out of school — and quit out of frustration or boredom.

Others point out that deficiencies in students’ secondary education are often the reason they are in remedial courses.

In an effort to provide better data for the discussion, the state in June approved a contract with the College Board to develop a statewide placement assessment, which all institutions would be required to administer to incoming students who do not meet the benchmark scores on state standardized exams or college admissions tests. The new assessment is intended to provide a uniform view — different colleges offer exams from different vendors — and detailed diagnostics to give a better idea of what post-secondary students are missing. That in turn would allow colleges, if needed, to offer a three-week review of trigonometry instead of a yearlong review of introductory math. And for high schools, the diagnostics could offer a closer analysis of where they are coming up short.

“I don’t think we have a good identified gauge over the past because we’ve been using a test that has no diagnostics,” Richard Rhodes, the president of Austin Community College, said of measuring college readiness. “We also haven’t across the board done a good job in preparation to take the test.”

A growing body of research questions whether the measures that students must pass to avoid taking the placement test — the state standardized and college admissions exams — can accurately predict how well a student is prepared for college. Studies support that high school grades, not placement or admissions exams, give a better picture of whether students are ready for college, said Pamela Burdman, an education policy analyst who recently wrote a report on the role of placement exams in assessing college readiness for Jobs for the Future, a Boston-based nonprofit. And the best measures, she said, use some combination of high school grade point averages and standardized test scores.

The move toward the single statewide placement assessments puts Texas at the forefront of states that are tackling how best to evaluate students as they enter college, Burdman said. Although it should be considered an advance, she said, the state was still several years away from determining if the method does a better job in predicting students’ ability to succeed.

If the state can do a better job of assessing what students need once they get to college, it also has implications for the help they receive in high school. Some community colleges across the country, including El Paso Community College, have provided students the option to take a college placement exam their junior year of high school. Once they receive their score, they can use that to guide their coursework in their remaining year. Burdman said it could serve as an early intervention to increase students’ chances at success before they get to the point where they need remedial work.

A few school districts across the state have collaborated with local community colleges in another way to increase their graduates’ likelihood of success in higher education. At early-college high schools, students can take a higher number of dual-credit courses earlier than their peers at traditional high schools, allowing them at times to leave school with an associate’s degree.

Such programs can also give the school officials who institute them a window into the challenges of increasing the number of students prepared for college.

West of Abilene, the Roscoe school district has invested money earned from area wind energy development into becoming a state-of-the-art early-college school, with a goal that 90 percent of its students graduate with an associate’s degree by 2015 — at a time when Superintendent Kim Alexander projects that about the same percentage will be from low-income and English-language-learning backgrounds.

Roscoe’s example helps illustrate the difficulties of measuring students’ “college readiness.” In 2010 the district still lagged behind the state average with just more than one in three students graduating ready for college in both English and math. But 55 percent of its students were already taking college courses through the dual credit program, compared with the state average of about 25 percent.

Alexander said that although he believed they were on their way to meeting the 2015 objective, the disconnect between the skills students need for college coursework and those that the standardized tests measure made it more difficult.

“Everybody is starting to see the issue, and everybody is trying to raise their standards, whether it is higher ed or public ed,” said Alexander, whose district has just under 400 students. “It’s just not in sync at this point in time.”

That may improve with the continuing transition to the STAAR exams, the state’s new standardized assessments, which are supposed to be better aligned to coursework. But Alexander said some of the issues in the current system would probably remain. For instance, he said that if students are taking a dual credit course, they must take both a standardized exam and a college final — something that he said was a deterrent for both schools and students who want to take that step.

“You’ve got that ever-present pressure on the high-stakes testing that really hogties your creativity to do some things,” he said. “There’s just some really tough issues that if you are wanting to be innovative and you are wanting produce a student who is really college and workforce ready, these students are almost being penalized for choosing that path.”

Other stories in our Beyond the Data series have looked at how many Texas students are dropping out of high school, how much schools are spending per student, and trends in school district staffing

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