The Missing Link: Analyzing the K-12 to College Alignment Gap.

In 2014, the national graduation rate hovered somewhere around 79.1% making it painfully obvious that more than 20% of America’s students are not completing high school; more-less meeting college requirements.  Students are expected to meet the minimum college acceptance requirements by the end of their senior year in order to gain access to the college of their choice. However, a 2003 study conducted by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research estimated that only 32% of students are actually qualified enough to attend a four-year school immediately after high school.  Thus, academic preparation is a major determining factor for students.   In many cases, the academic standing of a student will dictate whether or not they choose to apply to four-year, technical schools, or simply opt not to apply for college at all.  Ironically, many students who do meet the academic criteria and actually attempt to attend college are not succeeding.  Nationally, nearly half of all students entering four-year institutions  and nearly two-thirds of all students attending community colleges must first enroll in remedial non-credit bearing courses (Martinez & Klopott, 2005).  Experts in the field of higher education continue to point the finger at secondary schools for the lack in preparedness for college. This sparks a very controversial question: Is it unreasonable to assume that fourteen years of “No Child Left Behind” legislation is a contributing factor? The overemphasis on testing seems to create school and classroom environments where “test-prep” is the priority. This ultimately thins the curriculum and narrows the focus of learning down to what will actually be assessed at the end of the year.  Other preparatory skills and essentials that are necessary for college success often get overlooked.  Even the most savvy, veteran educators struggle with the notion of teaching anything outside of the state standards.  The opposing argument would suggest that integrating college readiness into daily classroom instruction should be seamless because they go hand-in-hand. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.  This is where the problem lies.  There are a number of teachers who want to do this but they don’t know how.  This is where training makes all the difference.  On the other hand, there are educators that are outright reluctant to teach anything but the standards due to accountability concerns.  These educators often express frustrations with time.  One young educator stated… “I need every single minute everyday.  There never seems to be enough time to teach the standards that will be assessed and my overall evaluation will be impacted by theses results.”

On another note, many college professors around the country have expressed concerns and frustrations with classroom decorum issues of first year college students.   A local college professor  reported to me that she had grown weary of the lack of persistence that students displayed.  “When things were difficult, they simply give up, or stop coming to class”.  She reported that students often expect “retakes”, a common k-12 practice that allows students to improve their grades if they failed to demonstrate mastery at the moment when they were initially assessed.   She also cited the following academic deficiencies among her community college students:

  • Analyzing or annotating the text
  • Citing textual evidence from a source(s)
  • Creating bibliographies
  • Plagiarism-directly copying and pasting from various internet sources
  • Low persistence-“Grit”
  • Critical thinking/problem solving skills are lacking
  • Many students lack the ability to organize ideas and articulate their thoughts in written form
  • Poor time management
  • Writing for research [Research Papers]
  • Evaluating an opposing argument

This is a trend that we must absolutely change. Private schools heavily emphasize college readiness and primarily focus on the ACT/SAT as opposed to a variety of mandated assessments.  The singular focus on college access exams and college entrance requirements from grades 5-12 seems to be paying in dividends.

As we move towards solutions, it is important to understand the importance of advanced academics.  Mathematics is one of many missing links in college readiness.  Susan Choy, leading researcher on college persistence and access indicates that students who took advanced math classes in high school generally had higher enrollment rates in four-year universities.  Additionally, a 2005 study conducted by the U.S. Department of Education revealed that low-income, first-generation college students who did not take upper-level/advanced math courses in high school were less likely to obtain a bachelor’s degree and were at more risk of not completing college.  Surprisingly, 60% of students who completed Algebra II or higher math courses felt that they were well prepared for college and the working world(Achieve, 2011).  Jennie Oakes, Cal Berkeley professor/researcher suggests that the intensity and quality of the high school course load is the most powerful factor in increasing a student’s likelihood of earning a college degree. Oakes further believes that middle schools bear the onus of preparing students to handle a rigorous academic course load before entering high school(Oakes, 2003). Unfortunately, many high school students that I encounter opt not to pursue advanced academic courses, because they believe that they are not as mart as other students. They feel like they are out of their league. This is where creating academic confidence for students truly matters.

Another missing link is the culture of the school.  Schools must work to foster “college-going” environments where college prep is a priority.  A University of Southern California study indicated that the environment of a high school develops a student’s college and career aspirations and shapes the academic preparation path for college as well(De La Rosa & Tierney, 2006).  Simply stated, the school environment plays a huge role in whether or not students feel comfortable enough to pursue post-secondary options.  The term “college & career ready” has become so cliché that we often neglect the “career” element. Realistically, there are many students who will opt for the career world immediately after high school as opposed to college and schools must ensure that these students will also have skills and viable options if this is the path that they choose.

Overall, I believe that if we can increase self-efficacy for students, we will holistically improve academic and personal outcomes for them as well. It is imperative for schools to cultivate the belief that “anything” is possible.  Once we do this, then students will boldly rise to the occasion.

The information presented in this article has real implications for school leaders, school counselors, academic advisors and policy makers.




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