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Why students are unprepared for college

St. Augustine reading philosophy and rhetoric in Rome by Benozzo Gozzoli, 1464

A recent Washington Post edition featured a front page article on the declining SAT scores over the last 10 years. In spite of overhauling the test ten years ago the trend is consistently downward.

Cyndie Schmeiser — chief of assessment for the College Board, which owns the SAT — said she is concerned because the share of students prepared for college has stagnated for five years. Close to 42 percent of students who took the SAT reached a score of at least 1550[out of 2400], a benchmark for college and career readiness. The share was far lower for Hispanic students (23 percent) and African Americans (16 percent).
 As a mom, a physician, and an adjunct college professor I have my own ideas as to why so many of our students are not ready for college. I wrote here about my recent adventure teaching a 100-level course at a four-year university. I recently received the report of my evaluations by students. They weren't too bad but there was a definite trend. The number one complaint that students had about my teaching is that I taught them too much. I gave them information that did not show up on the test. These students are totally unprepared to learn a body of knowledge and apply that knowledge. They did not understand that my job is to teach them the foundational knowledge they need to move forward in their chosen career field. My job is not to give them the answers to test questions so that they can regurgitate these answers on an exam. 

Much of this can be traced to the deemphasis of learning in our schools. We are not teaching students how to think but what to think. The teaching-to-the-test mentality makes learning all about performing well on the next metric whether that is an AP exam, the SAT, or the next iteration of a learning standards exam. Only information that shows up on a test is relevant. All other information is a waste of time.

We are also asking our schools to do so much more than provide an academic education. We are asking them to be teachers of morals, work ethics, and various social agendas. There seems to be an abundance of ideologues in the upper levels of academia and they embrace this opportunity for indoctrination. The study of history, literature, and so many other subjects  are exercises in diversity training, the study of microagressions, the chronicling of the evils of Western civilization, and the reinforcement of the perpetually offended.  There is no education in the rational, reasoned evaluation of ideas since any disagreement with the agenda du jour is labeled bigotry and hate-speech and categorically dismissed. Logic has been replaced with emotion.

I see this emphasis on victimhood and entitlement in my students. There is a constant request for special "accommodations" because of their hardships. For example, "I have a job and may not be able to arrive to class on time. Can you administer my tests to me on a different day and time that does not interfere with my work schedule?" Or how about, "If you give me a grade lower than a C it will not count towards my major. The cost of this class is a major financial hardship for my family and we cannot afford for me not to get credit for it. Therefore, you need to give me a C." 

These are only two of many requests I get from students who try to justify why the standards of performance and the course policies do not apply to them. These students cannot see that if I make a unique consideration for them I would have to do the same for every other student who comes to me with a sob story. They are so focused on their own exceptionalism that they do not recognize the obstacles and challenges of every other student in the class. Interestingly, I recently had the opportunity to chat with some high school teachers. They see the same sense of entitlement not only from their students but also from their parents.

College readiness has little to do with our feelings or emotions. Praising effort is fine for young children but as students approach adulthood the truth is results matter. College courses, especially in the sciences, involve a critical analysis of written material and quantitative calculations. It is a very Joe Friday approach: just the facts, ma'am. If you do not know the facts, you will fail. That is the harsh reality.

If we want to prepare our students for college we need to give them some of that realism. Parents need to teach their children that it takes more than desire to succeed. It takes the will to make hard choices and give up some play time to work towards success. It also takes some talent, aptitude, and even a little luck. Life isn't fair. There are always going to be people with more talent, aptitude, and luck than you. Instead of lamenting what they lack, students need to suck it up and do the most they can with what they have.

Let the parents parent. Let them address issues of morals, values, manners, and work ethic. Schools can reinforce a good work ethic and respectful manners, but leave the instruction in morals and values at home. Then let teachers teach without the interference of an agenda-driven curriculum. Maybe then we will have more students who are truly educated and ready to take the next step and enter college.


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