There are many reasons to be pessimistic about the state of American secondary education. By some measures, only a quarter of American high school students have the skills they need to succeed at college or in a career. Perhaps getting under the hood of some numbers might make us all better thinkers about education.
The ACT and SAT tests are designed to measure college readiness. According to recent studies conducted by the organizations behind these tests,* an ACT or SAT score corresponds to success rates at college. A 22 on the ACT’s reading or math test, for instance, corresponds to a 75% chance of earning a C in a college math course and a 50% chance of earning a B. Only 44% of those taking the ACT in 2012 (the last year for which we have data) were college ready in math and reading.
Here is the kicker. When students go to college, they take classes in reading, math, science and English. However, only about a quarter of high school graduates taking these tests nationwide demonstrate college readiness in all of the relevant areas and nearly one-third of test takers are not ready in any of the four areas. This means that they are very unlikely to finish college.
The movement among the ACT and SAT testing complex is to align curriculum in high schools more directly to the tests the students will be taking to demonstrate college readiness. High school students that take a “core curriculum” aimed at the tests—both tests tout—are more likely to do well on the tests and be “college ready.” Here are the statistics: According to the College Board, graduating from a high school with a core curriculum increased success rates on the SAT by about 15%. More core equals more college readiness, or so the argument goes.
This is where the Common Core State Standards policy fits in: It promises to (1) increase the number of students in core curricula and (2) increase the rigor of local core curricula by aligning curriculum and teaching techniques to national standards. Carrots of federal and foundation monies and exemptions from old federal testing are attached to adopting this common core; school districts around the country and state are hopping on board. Curriculum will be revised. New tests will bring accountability. Teacher evaluations will be tied to improving outcomes. Data will be used to make decisions.
This will also have an effect on higher education below the surface. Though I did not know it until I became a professor, the key to college “quality” has been the accreditation process—a process that has driven much of the growth in college administration in the last twenty years. An accreditation agency verifies that a degree from any educational institution is held to particular standards, academic and otherwise. High schools are accredited. Colleges and universities are accredited. What goes on in the curricula in high schools and universities are largely shaped by accreditation agencies, who tell the educational institutions what they have to do in order to grant degrees and receive federal monies or loans. The Common Core represents an effort to centralize the accreditation process—with high school curriculum and testing for colleges in the form of the SAT and ACT. Both the ACT and SAT organizations participated in developing Common Core standards and tests and promise to align their “college readiness” tests with the Common Core, which aims to promote both college and career readiness. It is certainly possible that college curricula will also have to be focused around a common set of standards.
As the accreditation standards come to reflect the same standards of Common Core, the differences among colleges and universities will tend to be minimized and, so the theory goes, they will all get better. Those universities accredited in the post-Common Core process will come to resemble one another more and more.
These are the trends, broadly speaking, in the American educational system for dealing with America’s yawning “competence gap.” Will the effort to institute a Common Core, a K-12, K-16 or K-20 approach to education, improve American competences? What effects might this approach have for college planning? We will consider these questions next quarter.
The views expressed here are those solely of the author and do not represent Boise State University or R|W Investment Management.
*Information in this article is derived from:
The ACT’s Annual Report entitled “The Condition of College and Career Readiness”
The College Board’s “2013 SAT Report on College & Career”:
An article by Libby A. Nelson, “The Common Core on Campus:”
Dr. Scott Yenor
Professor of Political Science
Boise State University
Scott Yenor is Professor of Political Science at Boise State University, where he teaches courses in political philosophy, American political thought, and constitutional law. He is also Director of the American Founding Initiative, which aims to bring ideas of limited government and classical liberty to today’s university. His publications include Family Politics: The Idea of Marriage in Modern Political Thought (Baylor, 2011), which concerns the way in which the ideas of contract and human autonomy have eclipsed the idea of marital unity in modern political thought. He is currently working on three books—one applies the idea of marital unity to today’s family policy; another concerns American Reconstruction; and the last is about the political thought of David Hume. He lives in Meridian Idaho with his wife Amy and five children—Jackson, Travis, Sarah, Paul, and Biscuit (Mark!). He enjoys basketball and reading (especially Russian novels and he has pledged to read only Russian novels until January 2017).