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THE ISSUE: Beyond exit tests and diplomas; OUR OPINION: Emphasis due on skills needed for community colleges, workplace

As South Carolina lawmakers consider the merits of the exit exam requirement for obtaining a high school diploma in South Carolina, a new report on preparedness of graduates indicates re-examination of what is being taught is due.

Students are failing to learn the basic math and English skills and concepts needed for success in the first year at community colleges, according to the report from the National Center on Education and the Economy titled, “What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready: The English and Mathematics Required by First Year Community College Students.”

“Very little math is required of our first-year community college students, and what is required is mostly middle school math,” said Phil Daro, co-chair of the study’s Mathematics Committee and co-director in the development of the Common Core State Standards for mathematics. “But it turns out that a large fraction of our high school graduates have a very shaky command of middle school math, while most of the math taught in our high schools is not needed at all in community college courses.”

“The reading skills of our high school graduates are so low that most community college instructors do not expect their students to be able to read at the level of their textbooks,” said Catherine Snow, co-chair of the study’s English Committee, and Henry Lee Shattuck, professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Their writing skills are so low that instructors rarely ask their students to write very much outside of their English composition classes, and, when they do, the writing they are asked to do is not very demanding.”

The findings are important indicators of where education is failing and where changes are needed. With more students financially unable to attend traditional four-year institutions and/or seek bachelor’s or higher degrees, they are looking for community colleges to provide a gateway to further education or training which can apply in the work world.

Roughly 45 percent of our nation’s undergraduates are attending community colleges, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. About half of those students are training to go directly into the workforce and enter popular fields such as nursing, law enforcement, auto mechanics or education, while others are working to complete the first two years of a four-year-degree program. The report concludes that students who cannot succeed in the first year of a community college program are surely not ready for success in college or the workplace.

Most studies of course requirements in our colleges ask instructors what students need to know to be successful in their institutions, but that method is notoriously unreliable, because instructors typically respond to such surveys by telling the interviewer what they would like students to know, not what they actually need to know, according to AACC.

The new study was conducted by NCEE in collaboration with a team of leading scholars and community college leaders. It analyzed the textbooks, papers and projects students are assigned; the tests they are given; and the grades they get on both. These materials were gathered from a set of nine popular and diverse career-oriented programs in randomly selected community colleges across seven states.

To consider that basic math skills are lacking for so many while what is being taught to high-schoolers has little practical application in a community college is a disturbing but not new finding. The failure to train students in basic writing skills that will serve them in workplace communication is equally problematic.

By way of making changes that can improve the outcome for more students, the reports’ authors concentrate their recommendations on the steps schools can take to enable more of their graduates to succeed in community colleges:

* Make algebra II a key course on just one of several mathematics paths to a high school diploma, eliminating its mandatory status in some states.

* Have most students spend more time on middle-school mathematics rather than rushing toward algebra I.

* Reconceive community-college placement tests to align them with the mathematics students actually need to succeed in their first credit-bearing, programmatic courses.

* Increase writing assignments across all high school courses, especially those that require the presentation of a logical argument and evidence to support claims.

* Have high school students read texts of greater complexity.

South Carolina lawmakers have reason to be concerned about the exit exam and what failure means to students who are awarded a certificate of attendance. But the greater worry is keeping more students in high school and providing them with the training and skills that are relevant in the real world and, importantly, that they see as relevant.

High school cannot be everything for everyone, but in 2013 and beyond, connecting more students with the standards needed for success in community colleges is a priority. Reversing the findings of the NCEE study would be a good measure of success for schools and the students they educate.

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