Between Basic Skills and College Prep: Adolescents Need Attention
Most high school students today expect to go to college, but they do not feel adequately prepared for it. This revelation can be found among the results of a multi-year student survey conducted by the nonprofit organization YouthTruth. Between 2010 and 2015, YouthTruth asked thousands of students around the country for their thoughts on life after high school and whether they feel truly ready for college and their future careers. Forty-five percent of survey respondents said they were not feeling “positively” about life after high school.
It might be tempting to chalk this negativity up to adolescent nerves, but a 2017 Hechinger Report study showed that students’ uneasiness may be well-placed. The study found that in 2014 to 2015 alone, more than half a million students were taking remedial math and reading courses at colleges across the United States. In fact, almost every two- and four-year school surveyed by the Hechinger Report confirmed enrolling students in need of remediation. According to reporter Sarah Butrymowicz, this situation should not be ignored, as it reveals a “glaring gap” in the nation’s education system.
That glaring gap boils down to this: “A high school diploma, no matter how recently earned, doesn’t guarantee that students are prepared for college courses.” A lack of preparedness may lead to expensive and often unsuccessful remedial pathways in college (one study says remedial education programs cost taxpayers “$7 billion nationally,” with varying results), but it can also prompt a renewed focus on making sure adolescents get the interventions and programming they need while still in high school or middle school. For teachers, this involves the balancing act of boosting students’ basic skills while also making sure learners have access to the higher-level content they will need to navigate in college.
Students who do not successfully complete a college degree within six years often lack the basic academic skills they need to do well, according to a 2012 National Bureau of Economic Research report. This conclusion is supported by an online resource devoted to adolescent literacy: America, the site says, is in the midst of an “adolescent literacy crisis,” with stagnant reading scores on national, standardized assessments. Data from the Annie E. Casey Foundation also showed that “roughly 2 out of 3 fourth-graders failed to score proficient in reading in 2015.”
Although this state of affairs is concerning, it has made adolescent literacy a “hot topic in American education,” according to the resource-heavy AdLit.org website. Among the recommended strategies for addressing this issue is the use of early assessments to identify students in need as quickly as possible. Then, researchers say, it is important to understand that adolescents’ literacy needs are most likely different than those of younger students. In addition, the stakes are higher, as reports suggest that older students who struggle with basic literacy are much more likely to drop out of school than their more proficient peers.
Because adolescents often struggle less with phonics and more with the actual decoding of words, Dr. Rafael Heller has recommended literacy interventions that are a good fit for these particular needs. Such interventions may include engaging, short-yet-powerful lessons on how to “break words into recognizable parts.” Moreover, a 2013 study by Washburn University researcher Dr. Carolyn Carlson argued that concrete literacy support must be continued beyond elementary school. According to Carlson, literacy instruction “should remain intense throughout all grade levels” and be provided by well-trained reading specialists—who are, she noted, often in short supply.
That said, ongoing literacy instruction does not have to mean that students only get lower-level content. “All students must have access to rigorous academic courses,” maintained Achieve Inc., an organization devoted to boosting college and career readiness levels across the U.S. One recommendation is for states to make sure their K-12 education standards are aligned to the demands of both colleges and employers. In order to take the guesswork out of implementing increasingly rigorous and clearly aligned expectations, “standards must be clear, focused, and easy for educators to translate into classroom instruction,” Achieve Inc. asserted.
And high school test results and graduation diplomas should mean more, too. An emerging strategy is to allow students to use scores from high school assessment tests, such as state-mandated exams or the ACT, to qualify for college-level coursework and thereby avoid being placed in remedial classes in college. Those who don’t perform well on these tests in high school can ideally receive targeted instruction in literacy, math, or other key areas before they get to college.
All of this focus on preparing students for future success while they are still in a K-12 setting may go a long way toward ensuring that more of them are ready for college, a career, and life beyond high school.
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