Tuesday, July 12, 2005

What do students actually know on entrance to college?

The Times had an interesting piece on for profit "Career Schools," the fastest growing segment of higher education in NY State. Many of these schools are targeted at lower income students who did not do well in high school. These students are eligible both for Pell grants and a grant program at the state level. The tuition that is charged in some of these program is at or near the sum of the these two grant awards. There are some reputable programs that help the students learn a trade. But there also seem to be some scams going on. Students are admitted (obviously for their tuition money) who have no likelihood of completing the program and in other cases students are passed along though they have acquired no competence.

In the for profit sector, it is easy to understand the incentive to lower standards to admit more students because head count and revenue correlate so strongly. What is the situation at the not-for-profits?

One metric, of course, is median S.A.T. scores. I'm no great fan of those tests, but given that they publish the scores, why not give the full distributions for enrolled students and not just median scores. I believe the median at Illinois that I've seen reported is 1240. But let's say (and I am making this up) that 25% are at 100 points or higher. It sure would be nice to know if those students seem fundamentally different, in smarts or GPA or what not.

What about in student's ability to make a public presentation in class (or even to ask a coherent and interesting question from their seat)? Do we now anything whatsoever about how students speak? A few years ago I learned that they don't do interviews for most of the students who apply here. As a matter of scale, I can understand that. But if we want our students to be articulate upon graduation, do we have any clue where they are on that when they enter?

And then there is the issue of disciplinary preparation. The rule of thumb is that if coming from a suburb of Chicago with a reasonably high average income, the high school education will be pretty good. But if coming from a rural school with a small graduating class, there may not have been sufficient enrichment or challenge for those students in high school. I believe that is also true for inner city schools, though it is not small graduating class that is the cause. We certainly don't want to blame bright, but underprepared kids. But do we know about there situation beforehand?

This info is a few years old, but I know in Physics they have students self-identify their lack of preparation for the Engineering-Physics course, via poor performance on the first hourly exam. Only that triggers invitation into a remediation effort and it is voluntary on the part of the student to go for that assistance.

I'm not aware of anything similar in writing. We just don't have the resources. The kids with AP credit or just as they opt out of the Foreign Language course. Do we have a clue about how these kids write? I doubt it. (We probably don't know about their foreign language skills either, but except for a study abroad or advanced course in the language, those skills won't be called into question.)

A lot of what is being preached by instructional technologists is group activity aimed at promoting collaboration and a sense of community. I think that is great for those students who are ready for it. But I have not seen anyone ask what it takes to be ready to participate in such activities. What about the speaking? What about the writing? What about the general sense of civility? And on our side of the equation, if a student is lacking in one or more of these areas what do we say?

Here at Illinois we're swelling with entering students. I believe the first year class will have 7600. Not that long ago, 7000 was a high number. Maybe we should use performance in some of these other dimensions as a screen. (But I bet we'll just bump up the median S.A.T. score.)

No comments: