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What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready?

Posted on 06/21/2013

What does it really mean to be college and work ready

Students are failing to learn the basic math and English skills and concepts needed for success in community colleges, according to a new report External link opens in new window or tab from, the National Center on Education and the Economy (NCEE External link opens in new window or tab) entitled What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready: The English and Mathematics Required by First Year Community College Students.

The reports focus on community colleges, since they represent the largest sector of the U.S. higher education system, enrolling nearly half of all undergraduate students. Community colleges also provide most of the postsecondary occupational training in the U.S.

In conducting this study, NCEE randomly selected one community college from each of seven states and focused on the most popular and diverse programs in those colleges. The reports offer an analysis of the mathematics and English literacy skills demanded of the typical first-year student in a range of required community college introductory courses in the nine programs, based on data from textbooks, tests, and student work. 

In the case of mathematics, the study concludes that "a substantial part of the high school mathematics we teach is mathematics that most students do not need, some of what is needed in the first year of community college is not taught in our schools, and the mathematics that is most needed by our community college students is actually elementary and middle school mathematics that is not learned well enough by many to enable them to succeed in community college." While the typical high school math curriculum offers a sequence of courses leading to calculus (e.g., geometry, Algebra II, pre-calculus and calculus), the content of most first-year community college math courses is most often Algebra I plus some topics from Algebra II and geometry. Moreover, many popular community college programs that lead to well-paying careers require math that is not included in most mainstream high school math curricula, such as statistics, probability, and mathematical modeling.

In the case of English literacy, the report notes that "only modest reading and writing demands are placed on students in these courses. While texts assigned include content at about an 11th or 12th grade reading level, which is significantly more challenging than what they typically encounter in high school, the level of processing of those texts required by the assigned tasks is, at best, only modestly challenging in most courses." Aside from English Composition, few classes require students to reflect meaningfully and to analyze what they read. When writing is required, the tasks are typically not challenging, and the expectations of instructors for grammatical accuracy, diction, clarity of expression, reasoning, and forming logical arguments tend to be quite low. 

Finally, the report sounds a caution against using these findings to demand that community colleges immediately raise their expectations for students in math and English literacy and require high schools to prepare students to meet them. While this is clearly the ultimate goal, “a very large fraction of high school graduates does not meet the very low expectations that community colleges currently have of them. …it is important, first, to enable our high school students to meet the current very low standards before we ratchet those standards up.” The report ends with this note, in addition to addressing the low standards in high schools for these critical disciplines, we must also address the striking misalignment between the math and English literacy skills taught in high school and those needed to succeed at community colleges and subsequently in careers.

From the OVAE Connection External link opens in new window or tab newsletter of the Office of Vocational and Adult Education, U. S. Department of Education, June 6, 2013.