4 Things Parents Can Do About College Readiness
By Niels V.
ACT has released its data for the class of 2016, and the results aren’t especially inspiring. The biggest news is that more students failed to meet ACT’s “college readiness” benchmarks this year than last year.
Thirty-eight percent of 2016’s test takers demonstrated college readiness in at least three of the four core subjects included in the ACT – English, reading, math and science. That figure is down slightly from 40 percent in 2015.
Moreover, a full 34 percent of the 2016’s ACT takers didn’t meet any of the four college readiness benchmarks, up from 31 percent for 2015’s cohort. To put it another way, almost as many students failed to show college readiness in any of the four areas as showed college readiness in at least three subjects.
ACT is quick to point out that the falling college readiness figures might simply be a consequence of the fact that more students took the ACT this year. Sixty-four percent of seniors sat for the ACT in 2016, compared to 59 percent in 2015. The test’s growing popularity comes as more states are asking that schools administer the test.
Still, the mediocre college readiness statistics for 2016’s ACT takers have drawn more attention to a question that’s never far from the minds of educators and college officials: why do so many students complete high school without being prepared for college, and what can be done about it?
It’s worth noting from a historical perspective that students today aren’t necessarily less ready for college than those in previous generations. Rather, the number of students participating in higher education has skyrocketed over the last several decades while the number of students able to demonstrate college readiness has remained more or less stable. As the cliché goes, a college degree today is getting to be more like a high school degree used to be in terms of job prospects, so the problem of college readiness is taking on a new urgency.
There are different schools of thought on how to address this problem. Because students who fail to meet college readiness benchmarks are disproportionately racial minorities and low-income students, the solution may involve some sort of change in how funds are distributed to schools serving different communities.
However, parents don’t want to wait for these political details to be worked out, and they don’t have to. There are several things parents can do to help students arrive at college ready to thrive. Some important ones are:
1) Encourage Students to Read
According to the ACT’s detailed 2016 report, less than half of test takers demonstrated college readiness on the reading section of the exam. This is troubling because reading and writing are the bread and butter of a college education – students who haven’t honed their written communication skills in high school will be at a significant disadvantage when they arrive on campus.
Reading skills are tricky to develop because they can’t be taught explicitly the same way basic math concepts can. Rather, the way for students to get better at reading is simply to read as much as possible.
Parents can help students take real steps toward college readiness by encouraging students to read. This doesn’t just mean reading books for school. In fact, students who find books they genuinely enjoy are much more likely to put in reading time.
Reading isn’t just helpful in improving college readiness because it develops the skill of reading. It helps with more general skills like critical thinking too. So if you want students to pull ahead academically, help them become readers!
2) Supplement School With Tutoring
What the ACT data shows in simple terms is that schools in their current form are not preparing students adequately for college.
Therefore, one of the smartest things parents can do is supplement their children’s classroom experience with tutoring and classes outside of school. These kinds of academic experiences that take place beyond school help students in several ways:
- They reinforce material from school, helping students understand it more thoroughly and retain it better.
- They cover potential gaps in school curricula.
- They prepare students to demonstrate knowledge on standardized tests.
The education system as it exists has many imperfections, but parents don’t have to settle for those imperfections. Students with access to tutoring and other academic experiences outside the traditional classroom are less likely to be held back by their schools’ limitations.
3) Help Students Choose Their Courses Strategically
Another important insight from the ACT data is that the courses students take have a real impact on college readiness. For example, students who took calculus or some combination of at least four full years of math did significantly better on the math section of the ACT. Even taking just 3.5 years of math adversely affected students’ scores.
Parents can help students choose courses in a way that lays the groundwork for college. In-depth work in core subject areas can make the transition to college much smoother. Students who push themselves with challenging courses will find a payoff when they get to college – provided, of course, that they aren’t pushing themselves so hard that they’re too overwhelmed to make the most of the classes they’re enrolled in.
After all, it’s the coursework students do in high school that paves the way to college, so parents and students should make sure they choose that coursework well!
4) Work on Basic Academic Skills
It’s easy to think of college readiness only in terms of skills like algebra and reading comprehension. But what about the more general study and organization skills that make learning these subjects possible?
Students who are ahead of the game in terms of these basic academic skills will be more prepared for college in two ways.
First, the transition to college will be much easier if they begin their studies with these skills in place. Trying to learn these skills while coping with all the other adjustments college brings will make for a rocky time!
Second, if students get these skills down in high school, they’ll also be in a much better position to get the most out of their high school studies. This in turn will make them more academically prepared for college.
There are a couple ways parents can help students develop essential study skills:
- Help students get the hang of organizing their work using binders, planners, schedules, lists, and so on.
- Teach students how to set concrete, achievable goals. Students who know how to break their work up into practical goals will have an easier time organizing large projects and staying motivated.
College-bound students will have to learn these things at some point anyway – the earlier they do it, the better off they’ll be!
With the latest ACT score report, it’s logical enough to wonder whether schools as they currently work are up to the job of preparing students for college. The good news is that even if there are limitations to the education system, parents aren’t powerless.
In fact, there’s a lot parents can do to help students not just meet the college benchmarks but surpass them by a healthy margin! By encouraging students to read, supporting students in developing basic academic skills, extending the academic experience beyond the bounds of the classroom through activities like tutoring, and knowing that a robust course load is key to college readiness, parents can help students pull ahead in terms of the academic, organizational, and critical thinking skills that lay the foundation for college.
There’s no doubt that the ACT shows serious shortcomings and inequalities in the education system that we need to work on as a society. In the meantime, however, all hope isn’t lost – with a proactive approach, high-school students make sure they arrive on campus with all the tools they need to excel!