Students’ writing not adequate for college

“I teach composition, and many of my students do not understand the very basics of formulating an argument for example, you must support a claim with evidence. High-school teachers need to emphasize writing skills and critical-thinking skills. Colleges should organize seminars for high-school teachers to help them understand an institution’s expectations of first-year students.”

An English professor at a public university in Georgia

“Students are hurt by a watered-down level of course placement. Guidance counselors recommend students for honors and AP courses who are not necessarily honors/AP students. The school administration then puts pressure on teachers to have an acceptable grade average in the class, forcing teachers to ‘dumb’ down the material. Therefore, honors courses are no longer really honors courses, and AP courses are no longer AP courses.”

A social-studies teacher in Connecticut

A recent study reported in a special report of the Chronicle shows that many college teachers don’t think high schools students are being taught to write well enough for college, though high school teachers have different perceptions. In companion national surveys, forty-four percent of college teachers say students are not well prepared for college-level writing while only ten percent of high school teachers hold the same view. The surveys were conducted and analyzed for The Chronicle of Higher Education by Maguire Associates, a Boston-area research and consulting company.

Diane Ravitch remembers when high school instruction was driven by the reality that students needed to write well to get into college--and not just persuasive essays displaying little knowledge of the sort that are fashionable today.

In a related article, Stanley N. Katz argues that we need to revitalize liberal arts at the high school level:

The current regime of testing is aimed at raising the test scores of students who are performing poorly. It is an entirely skills-based approach, geared toward using the threat of federal sanctions to raise a low common denominator. It leaves out subjects like history, civics, literature, the arts, foreign languages and advanced courses in every subject. As a result, many states have adopted a dumbed-down definition of proficiency.

It’s an axiom of organizational development that systems are driven by what they evaluate. If we want students to be thoughtful, careful and coherent thinkers, we will ensure that they take courses that require substantive reading and we will pay attention to how they think with what they are learning by paying attention to what they write.

. . .testing, not curriculum, has come to dominate our discussions of the transition to college. The issue was at the top of the agenda of elite prep-school and college reformers, who issued a report, General Education in School and College: A Committee Report, in 1952. They emphasized a liberal-studies, seven-year program for high school and college and, in an appendix, almost as an afterthought, suggested “an experiment in advanced placement.” But their intention was to set up examinations to “be used, not for admission to college, but for placement after admission.”

Today the full report has been forgotten, the Advanced Placement course has taken on an unintended life of its own, and the AP examination has become little more than yet another testing hurdle to college admissions.

I think the answer is to revisit the earliest ideas about liberal education for young people. That would mean recommitting ourselves to fostering intellectual development across the years of the late teens and strengthening liberal education in the schools. That does not mean expanding test-driven AP courses, but developing courses in the humanities, social sciences, and natural sciences that challenge young people to think synthetically and to understand that the essence of education is the courage and ability to make value judgments. Moving in that direction would permit us to reinvigorate general-education courses during the first two years of college, giving upperclassmen the deep understanding to think better and do more in their disciplinary majors and, more important, to contextualize those majors.

The testing regime has given educational leadership to officials contrained by politics and bureaucracies. It is not clear “that they even know what ought to be done.” It’s pleasant to think that it might still be possible to have a high-level conversation of scholars, leading to institutional action, about what matters most in education. It’s even more pleasant to believe that, if such a conversation did occur, liberal arts would be given an important place.


Posted by Michael L Umphrey on 03/20 at 05:20 AM
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