Why We Need to Increase Our Academic Expectations for Low and Middle-Class Students

Follow-up Opinion by Laura Waters in NJ Left Behind


 Yesterday NJ Spotlight ran my column on why N.J. suburban, middle-class high schools need to raise academic expectations for students so that they enter college and/or careers prepared for this flat world. I could have (should have) cited two recent reports, one from Campus Technology and the second from Hechinger, that explores this lack of preparation in more detail. (Hat tips: Peter Cunningham.)

The Campus Technology piece explains that

Neither university faculty nor employers believe that American public high schools are preparing students for the expectations they'll face in college and career. In fact, compared to 2004, the assessment is even more dismal. More than a decade ago, for example, only 28 percent of college instructors stated that schools were doing an adequate job of readying students for what came next after high school. That count is down to 14 percent in 2015. Among employers, 49 percent in 2004 said that schools were adequately preparing students for what they would need for work; in 2015, the count was 29 percent. Part of the challenge, say students themselves, is that their high schools don't set academic expectations high enough. Fifty-four percent said that they were only "somewhat challenged"; 20 percent said it was "easy to slide by."

Hechinger pivots off ACT’s annual report. Based on questions answered by students taking the ACT, an assessment that measures student readiness for college, 96% of low-income students said they plan on attending college. But “half of all low-income test-takers failed to meet a single benchmark” on the ACT.

Yeah, yeah, poverty is a formidable obstacle to academic success. But it’s not insurmountable if high schools steer all kids, especially those from low-income and middle-income families, towards courses that teach the skills and academics that are prerequisites for college entrance and completion, as well as provide the supports they need to be successful.  This shift – and it is a shift, because we sure don’t do it now will require standards and assessments that, well,  look a lot like the Common Core and its aligned assessments.

From Hechinger:

It would seem, given this data, that we’d want to do a whole lot more to make sure more kids, especially poor kids, stay on the college track. And that means taking four year of English class and three years of social studies, laboratory science and a math sequence culminating in Algebra 2. It should be made very clear to district leaders that high schools in low-income neighborhoods that do not offer students real live laboratories in which to learn laboratory science are unacceptable. And it should be made very clear to parents, especially in low-income communities, that when their fourth grade slips behind grade level in math, it’s not a case on “not being good at math.” At 9 years old, that child is being steered toward a high school course sequence that is not likely to end with them ready for college.

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