Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Why Every High School Graduate Needs to Be Proficient in Reading and Math

The federal No Child Left Behind law has been traumatic for many schools across the nation because it defines a different measure of success than most school systems have been using for years. No Child Left Behind says that by 2014, a school will be called a failure if every child is not proficient in key skills like reading and mathematics.

In contrast, most school districts have measured "success" based on the proportion of their graduates going on to college (and wealthier school districts are even more specific about reporting which colleges their graduates go to). Since no school expects every student to go to college, 100% success on this measure isn't expected. And until No Child Left Behind, nobody really forced school districts to define success for the rest of the kids -- it was assumed that they would just go into the workforce, and how they did in school wasn't really important.

A new study just issued by ACT called Ready for College and Ready for Work: Same or Different shows that schools have had it half right: the right measure of success is not whether kids go to college, but whether they could go. The study says that the reading/math proficiency level that a high school graduate needs in order to get a good job that doesn't require a college degree is basically the same proficiency level as that student would need in order to succeed in college. The days when you could get a good job based on brawn, not brains, are slowly fading.

ACT not only produces the ACT test (one of the two major readiness-for-college tests, in addition to the SAT), but also WorkKeys, a job skills assessment system that defines what people need to know in order to qualify for specific types of jobs. The study looked at the kinds of jobs that don't require a bachelor's degree, but which pay salaries in the $30,000 to $40,000 range (i.e., family-sustaining jobs). It found that the level of proficiency in reading and math needed for those jobs according to WorkKeys assessments was essentially the same as the level of proficiency needed to succeed in college according to the ACT test. (It's important to note that the phrase is "succeed in college" in that last sentence, not "go to college." There is growing recognition that the statistics trumpeted by many school districts regarding how many of their graduates go to college hide the fact that many of the students who go to college don't finish. )

But isn't this much ado about nothing? Isn't going to college still the right goal for schools? Well, a little-noticed study issued by the Allegheny Conference on Community Development last fall called "Jobs of the Future" showed that most future jobs in the Pittsburgh Region (and in any region) will require a high school education and on-the-job training, not a college degree. So if schools only care about the proficiency of kids going to college, employers will have a hard time finding qualified employees for most of their jobs. And that would be bad news for the region's economy.

So the bottom line is that whether a student is going to go to college (and finish) or go directly into the workforce and get a good job (and that pretty much covers the desirable outcomes, other than military service), that student will need to finish high school at least being proficient in reading and math. Which is exactly what No Child Left Behind is pushing schools to achieve.

The bad news is that today, 1 out of 3 children in the Pittsburgh Region are not proficient in reading and math, starting as early as 5th grade. That means 1 out of 3 kids will not only not be able to go to college and finish, but they also will have a hard time qualifying for a good-paying job. Fixing that has to be a priority if the region is going to be a competitive location for job growth in the future. And a growing number of schools are proving that it can be fixed without more money.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

While I obviously don't want to see any children left behind and support the program, I'm finding a pattern of teachers worrying that the bottom-end kids are brought up to passing (because that's what teacher's are graded on) more than helping the top-tier kids excel.

The top-end student's are often left bored and unattended to. Since these may be the leaders of our future, Pittsburgh should have a "No child held back" policy too.

6:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We need school choice.

8:34 PM  

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