Tuesday, March 17, 2009

John Young: Stamped as 'college material'?

John Young | Waco Tribune
Tuesday, March 17, 2009

In NBC’s series “Friday Night Lights,” a pampered high schooler goes into a senioritis death spiral. Why? She’s suddenly realized that with her middle-of-the-pack grades, the two Texas-college color schemes of her dreams — burnt orange and maroon — are out of the question.

It’s hard to sympathize. Every student in this state with an eye on college knows, or should, about the rule that has guaranteed admission to the top 10 percent of high school graduating classes.

It’s a rule lawmakers are poised to dramatically alter this week, partially because an underbuilt college system has placed too much of a premium on two primo universities.

But something else is happening in the statehouse this week about college admissions, and it has nothing to do with percentiles.

It has to do with — ah, man, you guessed it — standardized testing.

Doesn’t everything come down to that? And isn’t that wrong?

Whether they would be tacitly or directly influenced, college admissions are among the less-discussed subtexts of ambitious legislation to revamp Texas’ school accountability system.

Two measures, House Bill 3 and Senate Bill 3, portend major, and in many cases very welcome, changes. Among the good:

* De-emphasizing the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills in promoting students. Under the new approach, TAKS scores would supplement other, broader criteria.

* Judging schools on a “growth model” tracking improvement, rather than today’s “gotcha” approach that doesn’t acknowledge different starting points based on economic advantages and disadvantages.

* Better aligning what colleges require and what high schools produce.

All of that is good, unless we get into a mode of standardizing what “college material” is. That would be bad. There’s evidence in this well-meaning legislation that it would result in exactly that, to the detriment of some promising students.

At issue is the use of high school end-of-course exams to certify a student as “college-ready.”

Pass the end-of-course exam for advanced English and Algebra II, and that’s your prize under an “advanced high school program,” according to the legislation. The bill also calls on the state to develop such exams for social studies and science. They would be used to give a state-certified endorsement of college readiness, as well.

Those who didn’t take advanced English or Algebra II, or who couldn’t pass the end-of-course exam in either, could still graduate but with the “alternate performance standard,” meaning “postsecondary-ready” (candidates for community college or technical schools). What critics say it really means is these students would be “remediation-ready” — aka, “not worthy.”

Wait a minute. What about the young man who can master the complexities of a circuit board but who is knock-kneed putting his words in prose? What about the young lady who is the next great novelist but who crumples into a heap in the face of algebraic equations?

I’ll guarantee that I had an “advanced high school program,” but one that was loaded toward English and journalism my senior year, with no math. Would that have made me not “college-ready”?

Some minority advocacy groups fear an “apartheid” system, with the top-10 rule in jeopardy and end-of-course exams assuming such weight. They warn that the Algebra II end-of-course test itself could marginalize staggering numbers of Hispanic and African-American students, making them think they aren’t college material.

It is true that Texas colleges spend too much time and resources on remediation for students who need help in math or English. But let’s acknowledge that it’s a pretty good investment if it results in the first college graduate in a family’s history.

It’s one thing not to reinforce the privileges of the pampered when we want students ready for college. It’s another to admit that for some, no matter how worthy, college is the last place they ever thought they’d be. We should think bigger for them.

John Young’s column appears Thursday, Sunday and occasionally Tuesday. E-mail:

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