Monday, March 10, 2008


Ask the Administrator: The High School – College Gap

A returning correspondent, who works at a cc, writes:

I have a question I'd like to ask about outreach
to local high school districts. I'm wondering if you
would have any advice, or whether your readers would
have any advice. We were approached by one of our
feeder HS districts to help them help their students
to bridge the remediation gap. In other words, their
students tend to fare poorly on placement tests given
in the local state university system and in the local
community college system. So they are effectively
asking us if we can do anything to better align what
they are doing with what we are doing.

I'm interested in working on this, but we don't have a
lot of money available. I spoke with someone who works
at supervising outreach programs at the chancellor's
office of the state university, and learned about what
has worked well and what hasn't worked well for them.

It's a great question.

This is one of those “nobody designed the system” phenomena that wouldn't make any sense at all if we were building a new system from the ground up. Many states, mine included, have statewide exams administered to high school seniors in a few core curriculum areas. High schools are judged, in part, by their aggregate performance on these exams. (No Child Left Behind, as I understand it, has raised the stakes and increased the reporting requirements.) So local districts have pretty much mandated that their teachers teach to the tests.

Inherently, this is neither good nor bad. If you're teaching to a fantastic test, then all is well. The problem is when the test isn't all that good, or isn't measuring the right things.

The Institutional Research Officer at my cc recently produced some numbers showing the percentage of new students from each of our local sending districts who placed remedial in English, Math, or both. In many cases, districts with plenty of money and excellent reputations were sending us cohorts in which half or more of the students needed remediation. And the percentages aren't just functions of low raw numbers, like a cohort of two people in which one needed extra help. These are significant numbers, coming from districts that think of themselves as the cream of the crop.

Since remediation is a major cost for us, we've started making some very gentle and tentative overtures to the high schools to get some discussion going about ways to better prepare the non-elite students for college-level work. (By and large, the elite students don't apply to cc's.) We've found a few things.

First, the tests to which they're asked to teach don't particularly resemble the tests we use for placement. So students who pass the statewide high school exams with points to spare frequently do poorly on our tests. (For example, the high school English essay test is based on the absence of errors. Ours is based more on the ability to make an argument. So a student who learned to write variations on “See Spot run” will do fine on the statewide test, and bomb ours. Similarly, the high school math test allows calculators; ours doesn't.)

Second, the high schools DO NOT like to hear it. The fact that in your case, they've reached out to you, will save a lot of time. With many of them, we're still trying to get past the 'denial' stage.

Third, and this surprised me more than it should have, certain schools that shall remain nameless have a disturbing tendency to shrug off our data with a dismissive reference to self-selection. In other words, “well, hell, you just get the weak kids anyway.” What this says about leaving no children behind, I'll leave as an exercise for the reader.

Fourth, training a newly critical eye on our own tests and protocols has sometimes been embarrassing. As easy as it is to blame the high schools for everything, I can't say that our house was completely in order, either. (One example: until I specifically asked them to change the procedure, the essay readers saw the students' names when they graded the essays. Districts with plenty of Spanish surnames intimated, with varying degrees of subtlety, that an essay with “Velasquez” on top would get graded more harshly than one with “Bailey” on top. Now they're simply numbered, so even if a given reader held racist leanings, he wouldn't have the opportunity to exercise them.) We've improved drastically over the past few years – I count that as one of my prouder achievements here – but problems this severe seldom have a single author.

What I absolutely would not to is start at the top. If you work mostly with principals and guidance counselors, they'll 'yes' you to death and nothing will change. Work with the teachers directly. Best case, pair your professors with their teachers. If the teachers lead, the principals will follow. (And model non-defensiveness when your own procedures are questioned or attacked, which they will be.)

Good luck!

Wise and worldly readers – what do you think?

Have a question? Ask the Administrator at deandad (at) gmail (dot) com.

"If you're teaching to a fantastic test, all is well."

Wonderful summation of the issue! May I quote you??
Sorry, not the big issue you're discussing, but the little issue of questions like "Will this be on the test?" or protests like, "What, the students just want me to teach to the test?!"

If you have a great test, then teaching to the test is actually teaching the course.
Here in California, in conjunction with the California State University system, we have an Early Assessment Program that tests students during their junior year in high school, in the hope of giving those who score poorly extra assistance during their senior year. Only time will tell if this lowers the remediation numbers. It does make lots of work (online scoring) for adjuncts and retired teachers--maybe 200,000 essays to score each year.
Have you looked at the test? I mean really looked at the specific problems and evaluated the grade level? The "math" on those tests is not high school level. It is usually 9th grade level, so passing it (after cramming for 5 months in your sophomore or junior year) is not the same as placing into College Algebra two years later, especially when allowed to use a calculator.

After you do that, you have to look at the strategies used to prepare the kids for that specific test. Odds are that they practice on problems of a similar design to those on your NCLB exam, teaching tricks that don't work on any other exam.

You might also look at what Sherman Dorn has written on the general subject of NCLB, including his books.
I'm also in CA, but at a CC. We have a good relationship with our local high school district. We have annual meetings between our English/Math/Science faculty from both systems and have discovered some interesting things.

For example, we learned that the state HS standards for English are heavy on lit analysis, but our CC classes are more focused on nonfiction reading/analysis (driven by the 4-year schools' demands). It's no wonder the students don't place well, especially when they can take literature only classes for English in 11th and 12th grade.

In response, the local HS district developed an elective for seniors that focuses more on nonfiction and expository and persuasive writing. We are also less likely to blame our HS colleagues when students have trouble with nonfiction, realizing that their standards don't cover it well.

The big lesson: talking to each other is a good thing!
I've been the math chair at a CC and now at a high school and I've taught at semi-fancy 4-year schools. I've also read a lot of literature from the early days of our professional organizations. I'm quite able to sum up what nearly everyone says regardless of level taught or decade in which they were writing:

Students come to us un- or under-prepared.

That said... Many colleges have a pretty decent set of data that suggests that their placement tests predict student success in the relevant courses pretty well. And, as a result, DD, your question about the placement tests would not be considered a question of interest to them...

But, let's just talk about calculus for a second... It's been taught (from what I can tell) pretty much the same way for the last 30 years. Yet, the vast majority of the students taking calc aren't trying to be math majors, they're taking it because of requirements from some other major. So, the Mathematical Association of America produced this big report called "Voices of the Partner Disciplines" which argued that the calc course itself needed some fundamental changes that included more focus on modeling, more use of technology (especially spreadsheets) and actual applications not just the contrived problems found in many texts (even the 'applied' texts I've taught from).

Yet, I've not seen much traction with respect to these changes actually being made.

My point: Are the courses that we're teaching actually meeting students needs?

My high school classes now include a lot more modeling of actual data than any that I took which means a corresponding decrease in the algebraic manipulations that are the heart of a lot of the placement tests. Perhaps I'm busy preparing students for the courses that the MAA claims we should be teaching?

Then again, my students can't recall jack 2 months after I've taught it, so probably not.
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