utah freshmen college readiness
Photo by Nazareth College / CC BY

Approximately 52 percent of incoming freshmen arrived on Utah college campuses this fall ill-prepared to deal with college-level coursework according to Utah Commissioner of Higher Education David Buhler. Using the results of the second year of Utah SAGE (a comprehensive assessment system) as one indicator, Buhler recently joined the eight public college presidents in the state as well as commissioners in other states in calling for reforms at the high school level that will increase the level of college freshmen readiness.

So 52 percent sounds pretty dreadful to me. More than half will be in need of remedial coursework? I wondered how this figure compared to the number for years past. The answer? It isn’t easy to find out.

Part of the problem when it comes to Utah college freshmen readiness is the use of the relatively new and unproven SAGE assessment system. To be more precise, the problem of comparison stems from the fact that past years’ statistics have been based on the results of the ACT. Developed by Everett Lindquist of the University of Iowa and first administered in 1959, the ACT is now the test most widely used to determine levels of readiness for college coursework. The ACT, like Utah SAGE training tests, is designed to test achievement rather than aptitude; however, the metrics as well as the subjects covered vary considerably. The ACT program tests student performance in four subjects: English, reading, math, and science. The reported statistics used to describe college readiness are a compilation of all four subjects. Percentages of students meeting or exceeding the benchmarks established for each subject area can, and regularly do, outstrip the average.

Moreover, SAGE testing casts a wider net. In theory, all students enrolled in Utah schools are expected to take the SAGE tests. Figures for the ACT are not as easy to track down, but the most widely agreed-upon one is that approximately 70 percent of students take the ACT.

Still, the ACT results compared over the years do give us a picture, viewed through their particular lens, of freshmen readiness, and the image isn’t encouraging. For instance, from 2003 to 2008, approximately 25 percent of students taking the ACT were considered prepared for college based upon the average of the four subject scores. That’s right. One in four. Not a pretty thought. In 2014, the figure was … wait for it … still 25 percent, again averaged over the four subjects.

Let’s take another run at this. Perhaps by standardized test measures, an alarming number of freshmen are ill-prepared, but how does the experience play out on Utah college campuses? According to David Buhler, over half of incoming freshmen require transitional (the politically correct term for “remedial”) coursework this academic year. And that number seems to have remained as fixed as the assessment figures. In an article in the Salt Lake Tribune in 2012, Lisa Schencker and Brian Maffly said that “About half of the students entering Utah’s open enrollment colleges have to take remedial classes, and only about 58 percent of the University of Utah’s freshmen graduate within six years of starting, a relatively low rate compared with similar institutions across the nation.”

To be sure, the fact that colleges and universities are offering transitional or remedial course work is fortunate for the freshmen students who need it, but should institutions of higher learning be expected to do so? Professors and administrators alike would argue to the contrary. Their charge is to move students forward in higher knowledge, preparing them for program completion and entry into the workforce.

Enter Commissioner Buhler, who on Sept. 1 announced his support for the Coalition of Higher Education for Higher Standards. Unfortunately, the three measures championed by the coalition are so similar to what has been tried before that they are in danger of being dead on arrival.

For example, the coalition recommends that every state should insist on K-12 academic standards that prepare students for a post-secondary experience. How? Does this not sound like how the Common Core started out? And we’ve seen how well that was accepted.

Then there is the recommendation that new college and career-readiness assessments be developed. At the same time, some Utah legislators are calling for the scrapping of the SAGE assessment program, alleging that it has not fulfilled its expectations, despite the over $40 million the legislature spent on its development. Utah doesn’t have a great track record when it comes to assessment development.

Finally, the Coalition recommends that all public institutions of higher education implement college and career-readiness standards that will ensure improved college readiness and increased completion rates. Note the absence of any language that would suggest a path of responsibility for helping with the implementation of the first two measures. Instead, it seems that higher ed will wait it out until the K-12 system gets its stuff together and starts sending them students they can work with.

Having spent more than 33 years in public education, I can assure you of one irrefutable fact: Like many other distasteful phenomena, blame also always flows downhill. In this instance, higher ed has figured out what high school professionals should be doing, and they will then pass on their wisdom to the middle and junior high school staff and administrators who will, in turn, share their insights will elementary school personnel. Look out preschool people, it’s headed your way.

What’s the answer? I wish I knew. I believe, however, that it is misguided at best to try to fix the problem by reinventing what has already been tried and proven to fail. Rather, I think we all ought to be focusing on the students and figuring out how they learn best. There are statewide programs such as Utah Scholars and the Regents’ Scholarship that have been proven to motivate students to take the right courses in order to graduate high school with a higher level of college readiness.

These programs are efforts focused on the people who hold the keys to the solution: the students. Let’s start with them.