• April 25, 2014

Top Students, Too, Aren't Always Ready for College

One recent morning over coffee, I was talking with a colleague about a rising source of frustration for him and his fellow faculty members: how unprepared for college-level coursework so many incoming students are, even at our highly selective university.

"They have the grades and the test scores to be here," said my colleague, director of undergraduate studies in math at the Johns Hopkins University. "What they don't have is a deep understanding of why the techniques they've been taught work, the actual underlying mathematical relationships. They walk into to my classroom in September and don't have the study habits or proper foundation to do the work."

His concerns don't come as a complete surprise. As a former college professor, provost, and president, I've been hearing faculty and administrators at top undergraduate institutions quietly complain for more than three decades about the declining quality of student preparation.

What's changed is that today, college readiness is more often a hot topic for educators and policy makers focused on at-risk students. The data driving their laudable work are alarming: Only one in four high-school seniors meets the four benchmarks designed to show readiness for a successful freshman year of college, according to the 2012 ACT college-readiness test.

Many groups are working to improve college readiness, including the Bill & Melinda Gates and the Lumina Foundations and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities. But there are two key questions few are openly asking.

First, what do we know about the college readiness of not just the bottom high-school performers but also the top students? The truth is that not all of the smartest kids who have jumped through the hoops required for selective college admissions are ready for the demands of college-level work. Second, what are faculty doing about the problem? Unfortunately, at most colleges, even teachers devoted to undergraduate success aren't convinced that it's their problem, nor do they know how to solve it.

My interest in trying to answer those questions is part of the reason I recently left a long career in higher education to run the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, a program for academically advanced pre-college students. From this perspective, here's what I think needs to be added to today's conversation about college readiness.

Above all, it's time to acknowledge that even top students may have college-readiness problems. Beyond the for-profit counseling industry that teaches kids how to check the right boxes to get into the most-prestigious institutions, many educators pay little attention to these students.

They should: Evidence suggests that academic talent is quite specifically diminished, not developed, by the school experience. A Fordham Institute study of how young American students testing in the 90th percentile or above fared over time found that roughly 30 to 50 percent of these advanced learners lost ground as they moved from elementary to middle school, or from middle to high school. And the focus on low­-achieving students in public schools has disproportionately left more smart minority and low-income kids behind, creating a well-documented "excellence gap."

It's easy to understand why such data are ignored; resources are needed elsewhere, most people believe, and many of these bright students shine. Indeed, the lucky ones have amazing pre-college opportunities.

Visit a summer program for talented and gifted students, and you'll see contradictions of claims that today's students aren't as well prepared as we were. But as I've come to understand, such programs continue to grow and thrive precisely because the kind of engagement, enthusiasm, and active group learning they provide is so hard to find in most classrooms. Yet supplementary work may not be enough, even for the fortunate few who qualify for accelerated, intensified programs and have, or are given, the means to participate.

Take David, a college student I heard from recently, who loved the summer program he took at the Center for Talented Youth a few years ago. But it wasn't enough to save him from being so bored in school that he "coasted" through elementary, middle, and high school and his first two years of college. "By the time I found academic work that challenged me, ... I realized my work ethic and study skills were atrocious, in large part, I believe, because I had never been forced to use them," he said. "I would like to know the person I would have become had I been engaged as a young learner."

Which brings me to a second point: Neglecting to engage young people with precocious academic talent and telling ourselves they'll be fine is bad not only for those students, but for everyone.

Our attitudes and practices send a loud and depressing message about how little we value academic achievement. From kindergarten through college, we must think harder about what we're saying when we focus on test scores, eliminate honors and AP classes, and cut what little financing exists for research on gifted students. Even as experts and pundits talk about the global achievement gap and the importance of creativity and innovation, few ask how we can raise the ceiling for the students already above the floor.

Moreover, many of the techniques that work with the brightest students can help reach students at a wide range of ability and developmental levels. If we thought carefully about college readiness as a single problem with differences for learners possessing an array of aptitudes, abilities, and interests, our solutions could be more comprehensive, coordinated, and effective.

Finally, as important as it is to focus on the preparation of our top students, we also need to think about another kind of readiness—that of faculty to teach the kinds of students who will enter college in the future. College teaching was a simpler job when only the best students were expected to seek postsecondary education.

On top of the increased numbers and diversity of students in the "college for all" era, college faculty have to reach "digital natives" and adjust curricula and teaching to the expectations and abilities of students who are taught to the Common Core State Standards.

In this new reality, college readiness, and the lack of it, should be everyone's problem. Educators at all levels should work together to develop programs and courses that support all students in reaching their potential, including advanced learners who need to challenge themselves beyond easy A's.

The world needs to know the people our children can become if they are all engaged as young learners.

Elaine Tuttle Hansen is executive director of the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, a former president of Bates College, and a past provost and professor of English at Haverford College.

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