High Schools Failing Generation Next
By Kavan Peterson, Staff Writer
From the White House to all 50 statehouses, a consensus is growing that something is seriously wrong with America's high schools. Adding to the pessimism is a new survey that finds nearly four out of 10 high school graduates say they have been inadequately prepared to enter college or hold down a job.
That's not all. Their college professors and job supervisors say the same thing.
According to a survey of recent high school graduates, employers and college instructors released Feb. 7, public high schools are failing to prepare at least 40 percent of graduates for higher education or an entry-level job. The survey was conducted in December 2004 by Achieve Inc., a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization headed by the nation's governors that advocates for higher academic standards.
Of 2,200 people surveyed, 300 college instructors estimated that about two out of five college students (or 42 percent) were not prepared to succeed in higher education. Four hundred employers surveyed estimated that at least 39 percent of recent high school graduates lack basic skills to hold down a job. An identical proportion of 1,500 recent high school graduates said they have gaps in their preparation for college or a job.
"While American public high schools are doing a reasonably good job with a majority of their students, they are seriously failing a substantial minority of young people across the nation," Achieve Inc. President Mike Cohen said in a teleconference Feb. 3.
The survey underscores dismal high school achievement rates nationwide that have barely budged in the past 10 years, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the federal testing program. According to the most recent NAEP scores, only 17 percent of graduating seniors are considered proficient in mathematics and just 36 percent in reading.
Most troubling, nearly one of three eighth-graders in America does not graduate from high school.
Ohio Gov. Bob Taft, who co-chairs Achieve Inc., said the survey confirms the situation in Ohio's public universities, where 42 percent of college students require remedial math and writing courses.
"This message should come as a wake-up call to governors and other state officials to do all that is in their power to ensure that their states' graduates are better-prepared for success," Taft said during a teleconference.
Seven of 10 college instructors surveyed by Achieve Inc. said they spend significant amounts of class time reviewing material that students should have learned in high school. The survey indicated that students lacked core skill and knowledge in a range of areas, including work habits, ability to read and understand complicated materials, and math, science and writing skills.
Taft said the survey adds to momentum building among the nation's political and business leaders to redesign America's high schools to better prepare students to compete in the 21st century. He called for states to require more challenging course work and stricter graduation requirements to ensure students are earning a meaningful high school diploma.
The nation's governors plan to promote this message later this month at the 2005 National Education Summit on High Schools, hosted by Achieve Inc. and the National Governors Association (NGA) in Washington, D.C. The summit will coincide with the NGA's Annual Winter Meeting Feb. 26-27 that most of the nation's 50 governors are expected to attend, along with top business executives and K-12 and higher education leaders.
President George W. Bush hinted in his State of the Union Address Feb. 2 that he soon would propose new national standards for high schools. Bush is expected to propose extending the accountability provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act to high schools by requiring annual proficiency exams in grades 9-11 and holding high schools accountable for student achievement.
The survey concluded that more rigorous course work and higher expectations lead to better-prepared students. Fewer than one-quarter of high school graduates said they were significantly challenged and faced high expectations in order to graduate from high school. Those students who said they did face high expectations in high school also said they felt adequately prepared for college or the work force.
More than 80 percent of graduates surveyed said they would have worked harder and taken tougher courses if their high school had demanded more from them. Among the reforms advocated by Achieve Inc. are a stricter core curriculum, high school exit exams, more access to honors and Advancement Placement courses, and greater access to guidance counselors starting early in high school.
Twenty-one states already require students to pass an exit exam or end-of-course exams to earn a high school diploma.
"We're hearing a clear message from our graduates that we do them no favors if we set the bar for performance too low," Taft said.
The survey, conducted by Peter D. Hart Research Associates and Public Opinion Strategies, found that students' socio-economic backgrounds were not a large factor in how prepared they felt, compared to how challenging their high school experience was.
"The most important determining factor is not the socio-economic status of the student, but the level of expectations that students had to meet in their high school," said Geoff Garin, president of the research firm.
However, many education advocates say stricter standards alone may not be enough to overcome the significant achievement gap that low-income and minority students face. Half of African-American and Hispanic students never earn a high school diploma. Those who do graduate have reading skills virtually the same as those of white eighth-graders.
Only a small fraction - 6 percent - of low-income students can expect to earn a bachelor's degree by age 24, according the Pell Institute for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education. For wealthy students it's 51.3 percent.
Recent studies also show that higher proportions of low-income and minority high school students are poorly served by their schools and their families, arriving at college unprepared and forcing colleges and universities to spend an estimated $1 billion a year on remediation.