When it comes to preparing students for the rigors of college, are North Carolina’s high schools getting the job done? Increasingly, the consensus seems to be that they aren’t.
For quite a while, the finger-pointing and criticism came from outside evaluations and educators. Much of the censure stems from the fact that North Carolina continues to have appalling and inexplicably large discrepancies between proficiency scores on state tests and those on the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). There are also high remediation rates for community colleges and universities admitting students lacking skills. The fact that the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction has had a policy on academic rigor in place since 1995 has done little to quell accusations of low expectations.
In 2003, the drumbeat for change got a bit louder with the release of “Public High School Graduation and College Readiness Rates in the United States,” a report authored by the Manhattan Institute’s Jay Greene. Greene’s data provided some startling feedback about high school performance in our state: In 2003, North Carolina posted a graduation rate of just 63 percent, landing us near the bottom (45th place) in a state-by-state ranking. Among our state’s high school graduates, only 40 percent demonstrated what Greene deemed “college-ready transcripts.” Of all the students who entered North Carolina high schools as freshmen in 1999, only 25 percent left well-prepared for college in 2003.
State officials are finally paying attention. Last week, the (SBE) approved a proposal to toughen graduation requirements. The proposed core framework would require all freshmen entering high school in 2008 to complete the same courses now required for admission to the University of North Carolina system. The SBE will hold town hall meetings across the state this winter to solicit reaction from parents, educators, and community members.
If adopted, the SBE’s proposal would discontinue several courses of study now available and push every student into just one track. Since the SBE passed new graduation requirements in 1999, students have been permitted to choose one of four study tracks: career prep, college tech prep, college/university prep or occupational. (Students with disabilities will still have the option of pursuing the occupational track if specified by their Individualized Education Plan).
While the State Board’s goals are admirable, their plan will only patch a systemic problem. Yes, high schools are failing students, but most of the academic decline occurs in middle schools. If we don’t maintain academic rigor across the board, high school teachers and administrators will have no choice but to lower standards allowing students to take required courses. Simply mandating that prospective graduates take more classes will do little to combat college-level remediation in the core subjects, and it may compound an already intractable high school dropout problem.
In the end, what do we know for sure? Many high school kids aren’t ready for college and we need to remedy that. But the truth is lots of students aren’t ready for high school either. If we’re serious about reforming public education, we need to go back to square one, enforcing tough academic standards in the core subjects for all elementary, middle, and high school students. It’s a tall order, but it sure beats the alternative. We would know – we’ve already been there, done that.
Lindalyn Kakadelis heads the North Carolina Education Alliance.