The College Puzzle Blog
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Dr. Michael W. Kirst

Michael W. Kirst is Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University since 1969.
Dr. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. Before joining the Stanford University faculty, Dr. Kirst held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty. He was a former president of the California State Board of Education. His book From High School to College with Andrea Venezia was published by Jossey Bass in 2004.

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My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

Reading Scores Are Warning Signs for Lack of College Readiness

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) released the grade 12 results recently. The results in Reading demonstrate a decline between 1992 and 2005. The results do not bode well for aspirations of higher academic readiness, college preparedness and college success.

The test was given between January and March of 2005 to a representative sample of 21,000 high school seniors attending 900 public and private schools. Exams in reading, math, science and writing also were administered to fourth and eighth graders.

The results found that the reading skills of 12th graders tested in 2005 were significantly worse than those of students in 1992, the first time a comparable test was given, and essentially flat since students took the exam in 2002. The share of students lacking even basic high school reading skills -- meaning they could not, for example, extract data about train fares at different times of the day from a brochure -- rose to 27 from 20 percent in 1992. The share of those proficient in reading dropped to 35 from 40 percent in 1992.

Yet, high school graduates in 2005 had studied more than their counterparts in 1990, averaging 360 more hours of classroom instruction during their high school years, the transcript study showed. Their grade point average was a third of a letter grade higher than in 1990, and more students were taking foreign language and other courses aimed at preparing them for college.

Thus, the poor reading scores of 12th graders puzzle educators. Since state tests -- known generally as STAR tests in California -- indicate that student achievement has been improving, why are high schoolers faring so poorly on the annual federal assessment, known as ``the nation's report card?''

Educators and administrators of the National Assessment of Educational Progress blamed the seemingly contradictory trends on more difficult course work and on grade inflation -- a phenomenon documented by other surveys of high school students.

The NAEP results surprised me, too, because the number of students who took 4 years of English is up from 40% in 1990 to 68% in 2005.Moreover, the average grade in English is also higher.

This is alarming because many states, including California, have been making significant gains at elementary grades, and it doesn't show up here in 12th grade. The trend line is baffling.
We should be concerned because this is another year where the nation as a whole is showing no progress in reading at 12th grade. A recent article in the San Jose Mercury News explored the surprising findings and the article included my comments or possible explanations:

(1) One possible explanation for the poor high-school showing was that test-weary 12th graders do not try hard on the national assessment.
(2) Another explanation is the fact that high schools are not teaching reading, so growth in that area tapers off.
(3) Or possibly the federal test standards, designed by an independent panel, aren't aligned with state standards. In fact, critics have called the federal assessment much tougher than most state standards, even those of California, which among the states has set the bar for proficiency comparatively high.

The bottom line is that high school students are taking harder courses and earning better grades yet reading at significantly lower levels than their peers did 13 years ago. Thus, there is an urgent need to teach reading skills across the high school curriculum and not just in English classes.

Considerable research stresses there is a difference between English literature studies in high school and technical reading in college courses like biology and economics. NAEP tests more than English literature so its broader emphasis may have exposed some reading weakness that otherwise would’ve been missed by testing with an English-lit emphasis.

In order for college readiness and college success to increase, reading instruction – in all subject areas—must improve as well as persist THROUGH all years of high school.

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