By Robert Luebke
The following appeared as an op-ed in the Fayetteville Observer on Sunday, December 3, 2017
Every public school student will graduate ready for post-secondary education and work, prepared to be a globally engaged and productive citizen.”
Those lofty words are from the vision statement of the State Board of Education of North Carolina. With the adoption of Common Core State Standards in 2010, college and career readiness became the stated outcome of our public schools.
According to the Department of Public Instruction, in 2015, 82 percent of North Carolina high school graduates intended to enroll in a public or private four-year college or two-year community college.
Education officials trumpet that North Carolina’s four-year high school graduation rate is at an all-time high; 86.5 percent.
If we seek to enroll more graduates into college, high school graduates need to be ready for college. Are they?
In 2016-17 the percentage of 11th grade students in North Carolina taking the ACT test — an exam that gauges college readiness — who met ACT benchmarks in all subject areas was 30.8 percent. The concerns aren’t limited to high school. The percentage of K-12 students who met or exceeded college or career ready proficiency standards on all EOG/EOC subjects was less than half of all students (49.2 percent).
Today children receive nonstop messages about the benefits of higher education. Couple that with pressure from Washington and Raleigh to not only increase the number of high school graduates and get students into colleges, but to also increase the number of minority and disadvantaged students and you have significant forces working to open college doors. It’s a mix where strange things begin to happen.
North Carolina’s rising graduation rate was supposed to be good news. Until you realize it has been aided by an online credit recovery program that allows students to retake parts of classes for credit that students failed to gain credit for the first time. In 2015-16, over 18,600 students enrolled in credit-recovery programs and 64 percent of students passed. The unusually high numbers of students gaining diplomas through the program has raised questions and recently caught the attention of the State Board of Education.
In North Carolina, students are considered career and college ready when they have the knowledge and academic preparation needed to enroll and succeed, without the need for remediation in college-bearing courses like English language arts and mathematics. The percentage of students taking remediation classes in many states ranges from the mid-thirties to mid-forties. Not in North Carolina.
But further reflection reveals that policy changes — not improved preparedness — have reduced the size of the remediation applicant pool.
For instance, if a student takes four years of math, has a GPA of 2.6 or better and graduated in the previous five years, they are not required to take the placement test. This significantly narrows the pool for potential remediation.
In the last several years, North Carolina has awarded performance grades to all public schools. Schools are awarded individual grades A, B, C, D and F. While we can argue about how the grades are calculated, few parents know that the grades are based not on a traditional seven or ten-point grading scale, but on a 15-point scale. The new scale makes it easier to get higher grades and lowers the floor for failing from a score of 69 to 39 and below.
Performance grading was supposed to revert to a 10-point scale a few years back but lawmakers have delayed the transition.
These factors may help to explain the myth of college readiness. None of this is easy to fix.
Parents and taxpayers should expect high school graduates to have the skills necessary to enter either higher education or the work force. That we find more students unfit for higher education points to a system where the rush to expand access has damaged educational quality and had the opposite effect. The gap between the rhetoric and reality of college readiness is a problem we have tried hard to ignore. It shouts for our attention.
Dr. Robert Luebke is Director of Policy at the Civitas Institute in Raleigh.