Academic rigor makes the difference in college readiness, success

September 9, 2013  

Taking challenging coursework in middle school and high school not only prepares students for success in college but also is the best predictor of both college readiness and college success, says Pamela T. Horne, associate vice provost for enrollment management and dean of admissions.

"Meeting high school graduation requirements or even taking a set of core academic courses is necessary, but not sufficient to effectively preparing for postsecondary success," Horne says. "Both Indiana and our country have set ambitious goals to increase the proportion of our adult population that has a college degree. It will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve these laudable goals unless we quickly improve the level of our young people's pre-college academic preparation."

Horne cites three recent reports -- the ACT Condition of College Readiness Report, the College Board's Report on College and Career Readiness and the Indiana College Readiness Report -- to illustrate why academic rigor matters. Below, Horne provides details about the reports and answers questions about how students and their parents can lay the foundation for postsecondary success.

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Question: What were the headline findings from these reports?

Answer: Students (and their parents) across socio-economic and racial/ethnic groups want college in their futures. There are only small gaps in the educational/career aspirations among groups at the time of ACT testing during sophomore-senior years. But there remain persistent preparation gaps and, later down the track, attainment gaps. These gaps are very closely associated with the rigor of the elected high school curriculum.

High school rigor matters in both predicting college success and preventing the need for remedial work. ACT's study further points out that it is the intensity and quality of core academic courses that really matter for effective preparation.

Q: Did the reports discover any differences between high school students who took Advanced Placement (AP) courses and those who did not?

A: Exposure to the challenges of an AP course -- even if the results don't provide college credit -- predicts college success.

Only 3 percent of Indiana students who took an AP exam and earned a "3" or better needed remedial work in college, and only 15 percent of those who took an AP and earned a "1" or "2" needed remedial work. In contrast, 45 percent of those who never took an AP exam required remedial work. These trends continued once the students were in college. Those who passed an AP exam earned an average first-year GPA of 3.2, those who took at least one AP exam but did not pass one earned an average 2.7 and those who never took an AP exam earned an average college freshman GPA of 2.3.

The College Board's national data show similar results. Among the students who took AP or honors English, 71 percent scored at the college-ready benchmark on the SAT compared with 38 percent who did not take honors or AP. For math the difference is 83 percent vs. 44 percent and for writing it's 66 percent vs. 35 percent.

Q: For Indiana students, did earning the state's academic honors diploma affect college readiness?

A: In Indiana, only 7 percent of those who earned an academic honors diploma (which includes foreign language and AP or dual enrollment coursework) needed remedial work in college, compared with 41 percent of those who graduated with a Core 40 diploma and 83 percent of those with a general diploma.

Honors diploma graduates earned an average 3.1 GPA during the first year of college compared with the very low 2.3 GPA average earned by Core 40 graduates.

Q: What can parents and students do that will contribute to college readiness and success?

A: First, we need to encourage students to take AP and rigorous honors dual enrollment courses so they can be exposed to college-level work. (If available to the student, the International Baccalaureate curriculum is also well-recognized throughout the world as rigorous intellectual college preparation.) In these courses, students will develop their academic skills, improve critical thinking and experience deep and broad subject matter. No doubt, students will be better for it.

Eighth-graders should take Algebra I -- it's a huge gate opener. It gets them on the college-prep track, and if they need to retake, they can. The stakes are lower when you're 14 years old, making that an ideal time to learn important lessons about hard work and perseverance. Also, students should continue taking challenging courses in lab science, an all-important foreign language and critical writing. These all contribute to the success equation in college -- and in careers.

If they aspire to a four-year college education, Indiana students should pursue an honors diploma -- the outcome data are absolutely compelling.

Students should elect five core academic courses each year of high school, including the all-important senior year.

We need to raise the bar. If we close the gap between aspiration and preparation, attainment will follow.

Q: What other factors play a role in making a successful transition?

A: In addition to pursuing rigorous core academic coursework, high schools students should develop study and self-management habits that will serve them well in college. Work experiences that do not detract from homework and studying, as well as meaningful leadership and service activities or pursuing the arts and athletics, can round out the high school experience and teach teamwork, time management and goal-setting skills.

Generally teens will live up or down to the expectations that parents and other significant adults set for them. Appropriately high expectations for challenge and achievement from the adults around them are critical for teenagers to hear, internalize and learn to carry out.

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