What percentage of Michigan high school seniors are ready for college?
The correct answer is: No one really knows.
About 74 percent of high school students graduate, which, if the diploma means something, should make them college and/or career ready.
By the standards used by the Michigan Department of Education on last year’s Michigan Merit Exam taken by high school juniors, 61 percent were ready for the rigors of college.
CORRECTION: By this year’s standards for the same test, however, only 17 percent were considered prepared in all five subject areas.
The ACT is also pessimistic. The organization that runs the national standardized test considers only 17 percent of Michigan high school grads to be fully “college ready.”
About 70 percent of high school grads enroll in some kind of post-secondary education, so maybe that’s the number who are college ready. But among those college-going grads, 35 percent take remedial courses on campus -- in essence retaking high school classes. If you don’t count them, the college-ready figure for high school grads drops to 46 percent.
If you’re confused, you’re not alone. Everyone from students applying to college to teachers in the classroom to legislators struggling to shape education policy are uncertain about college readiness, and how to better prepare students -- and the state -- for a world in which higher education will be the norm.
Grasping for an answer
No one questions the importance of college. But there are many questions about how to tell if a student is prepared. An analysis of school district-level data by Bridge Magazine and Public Sector Consultants found that readiness measures ranges wildly between districts, and in many cases, between measurements within the same building.
More than one out of seven school districts in the state scored in the top quarter in one college readiness measure and in the bottom quarter of another, making it impossible for parents to know if their school is doing a good job.
For example, graduates from Owendale-Gagetown Community Schools have Michigan Merit Exam scores in the top quarter of all schools in the state, but have ACT college readiness scores in the bottom quarter. So, are the school’s graduates prepared for college or not?
What about graduates of Ithaca Public Schools, who have ACT scores in the top quarter of all schools in Michigan, but almost half of whom take remedial courses when they enroll in college?
Southfield Public Schools was named an Academic State Champion by Bridge Magazine last fall for having a 2010 graduation rate of 90 percent -- highest in the state among urban districts with more than 40 percent of students receiving federal free lunch assistance. But only 4 percent of the district’s graduates in 2010 were considered “college ready” by their ACT scores; 18 percent were considered fully proficient by MME scores; and almost two-thirds of college-going graduates had to take remedial courses on campus.
“Parents, if they look at the scores, they should be concerned,” said Earl Dixon, assessment coordinator for Southfield Public Schools. “(But) the data is misleading. Look at our grad rates and number of scholarships (Southfield grads scored almost $10 million in college scholarships and grants last year), then you should be less concerned.”
Lou Glazer, president of Michigan Future, Inc., a group that touts the value of higher education, is skeptical of the various college readiness metrics -- particularly the ACT data suggesting that only 17 percent of Michigan high school grads are fully ready for college.
“Give me a break,” Glazer said. “I see no evidence that kids are leaving high school dumber than 20 years ago,” Glazer said. “It’s just more kids are going to college.”
Michigan’s subpar ACT numbers may skew low because the state is one of only eight nationwide that require all students to take the test, including special education students.
In other states, only kids who expect to go to college take the test. Four of the bottom-five states in average ACT score are states that require all students to take the test.
Michiganranks 46th in average ACT score, but ranks in the top 10 in all categories of the SAT -- rankings that are equally dubious for similar reasons. LINK
The level of Michigan’s college readiness is much less dire than portrayed by some of the statistics, argues Robert LeFevre, director of education policy and legal affairs at Macomb Intermediate School District. He claims that more than 60 percent of graduates from Macomb County schools already complete some type of post-secondary education, ranging from vocational certifications to bachelor’s degrees and higher.
Judy Pritchett, chief academic officer for the Macomb ISD, believes Gov. Rick Snyder does more harm than good by repeating in speeches that, by ACT standards, only 17 percent ofMichiganhigh school grads are ready for college:
“To have the governor throw out this arbitrary and capricious figure when you’re trying to instill in students that they can achieve at high level, kids say, 'My God, I’m not college ready, I can’t go to college.'”
An analysis conducted by MISD staff concluded that students who score a composite ACT score of 29 -- about the average ACT for incoming students at the highly selective University of Michigan -- have only a 62 percent chance of being deemed “college-ready” by their ACT scores.
“Kids can be really strong in math and not in English, and still be a really good engineer," Pritchett said.
LeFevre is skeptical that 38 percent of freshmen at U-M, one of the most prestigious public universities in the nation, are ill-prepared for academic success. “You’re talking to a guy who got a 16 on his ACT,” LeFevre said. “And I graduated with honors from Georgetown.”
To be considered “college-ready,” students must surpass cut-off scores in four different sections of the ACT. Many students are strong in some subject areas (English or reading, for example), but only average in others (science or math).
“Realistically, most kids are going to hit (the cut-off marks) in two or three areas,” says Wendy Zdeb-Roeper, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.
Rhonda Longworth, associate vice president for academic programming and services, understands why parents worry about Michigan’s college readiness statistics. “It’s legitimate to be concerned,” Longworth said. "Michigan, as a state. hasn’t focused as much on getting people into higher education as other states have, because of the opportunities for other career paths here. But I don’t think it’s as bleak as those numbers might imply.”
Solutions to confusion
If education leaders and policy-makers can’t agree on how to measure college readiness, the state can’t develop a coherent, unified approach to improving college preparation, said Amber Arellano, of the Ann Arbor-based Education Trust Midwest.
“In Michigan, unlike in some other states, there is no consistent statewide definition of ‘ready,’” Arellano said. “Each institution decides on its own. It is impossible for the state to have a coherent, unified approach to improving our college preparedness because, simply put, that’s not Michigan’s approach. Our governance system doesn’t allow for a coherent, unified approach. We have the most de-centralized higher ed governance system in the country. And K-12 and higher ed are disconnected -- there is no systematic way for them to communicate and align work, much less (develop) a vision.”
“We’re not ostriches here -- we understand education needs to change, but for the right reasons,” Pritchett said. “You need to be making that change systemically rather than reacting to constant badgering about not being college ready. There are ways to collect data to help teachers to change instruction almost midstream.”
LeFevre agrees. “College ready takes us on a path that doesn’t get us very far on improving outcomes,” he said. “Moving kids from 17 percent college-ready (on the ACT) to 19 does nothing for us; but having better content delivery in sixth-grade English and math will do much more for us.”
“There’s more to it (college readiness) than a test score,” added Zdeb-Roeper. “How do you quantify work ethic, the ability to be independent, to be able to take care of themselves? Those are the unquantifiable things that matter.
We don’t put intangibles in grades anymore. Now, it’s all about meeting benchmarks in curriculum. With those benchmarks, I can tell you very clearly if they have an aptitude in a subject area. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to get up and go to class every day.”
Senior Writer Ron French joined Bridge in 2011 after having won more than 40 national and state journalism awards since he joined the Detroit News in 1995. French has a long track record of uncovering emerging issues and changing the public policy debate through his work. In 2006, he foretold the coming crisis in the auto industry in a special report detailing how worker health-care costs threatened to bankrupt General Motors.