Cross-posted on Education Week

Earlier this week, the National Center on Education and the Economy released a study we have been working on for almost three years. There has been a lot of talk in recent years about getting high school students ready for college and work. But what does that really mean? We decided to find out, to see what skills in mathematics, reading and writing were actually required to be successful in the first year of community colleges. Why community colleges? Because about half of the high school graduates who go to college go to these institutions and because, of those who do, close to half go into programs designed to prepare them for careers and the other half goes into a program designed to enable them to transfer to four year colleges after two years. A College Board study shows that students who successfully complete the first year of community college are likely to complete a community college program with a two-year degree or certificate. So we can reasonably say that, if you have the skills needed to succeed in the first year of a community college program, you have left high school ready for college and career.

We selected seven states reasonably representative of the United States as a whole, and then selected, at random, a community college in each of those states. Then we selected eight of the most popular vocational programs in those colleges to study. We also studied the program designed to prepare students to transfer to four-year colleges. We collected the most popular textbooks in those programs and analyzed them for reading challenge and for mathematics content. We collected graded writing assignments as well as tests given at the end of courses and the grades given on those tests. From this information, we were able construct a detailed picture, program by program, of the content and challenge level of the reading, writing and mathematics required of the students.

Very little writing at all is required in most programs. The writing that is required is of a very simply sort. Students, for example, are rarely required to argue a position logically and marshal data on behalf of that argument. The typical first year community college text is written at an 11th or 12th level (which one would think would be a year or two below the level of community college), but it turns out that most high school graduates cannot read with comprehension at that level, because the typical high school text is written at the 8th or 9th grade level. So our community college instructors prepare Power Point presentations to make sure that the students get the main points in the text. When it comes time to test the students at the end of the course, they are not tested on much of the material that was in the text, and what they are tested on is mostly recall of facts, which means that much of what the textbook author thought was important for a student to know to be competent in the career for which he or she is preparing is not taught or tested.

It turns out that College Math, which contains the most demanding mathematics that most community college students will face in their first year, is actually Algebra one-and-a-quarter. That is, it contains the topics usually associated with Algebra I and a few topics in statistics and probability. One does not need Algebra II to study Algebra I. Indeed, it seems that what is normally taught in high school mathematics is not needed in community college. What is needed is middle school mathematics, but it turns out that high school graduates have a very poor command of middle school mathematics. And, we discovered that there are a number of very important topics in mathematics–like mathematics modeling, and the ability to read and interpret schematic diagrams and logic diagrams of the sort required for computer programming–that are needed in community college programs but are not taught at all in school. The typical textbook for the programs we looked at does require mathematics, but it seems that that mathematics is neither taught nor tested, presumably because the instructors do not think the students can do it.