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Educators struggle to prepare students for transition between high school, college

The Gap

Posted: September 10, 2012 2:00 a.m.
Updated: September 10, 2012 2:00 a.m.

Inside College of the Canyons’ $16 million state-of-the-art learning center, Karen Amano-Tompkins is on the front lines of a battle facing professors nationwide.

Most students in the remedial courses she teaches at COC — as well as those at Los Angeles Harbor and El Camino colleges, where she also teaches — are severely unprepared for college, she says.

“It’s very common for students in my classes to have never read a book before,” she said of her English 071 class, which is the first remedial level of English offered at COC.

That doesn’t mean they can’t read, she said. It’s a matter of choices and readiness.

“At all of my colleges, the majority of my students are not prepared,” she said.

For Amano-Tompkins, the goal is to increase buy-in for students on the pleasures of reading, she said.

The problem, educators say, is that California high school and college systems teach to two different sets of expectations, educators say.

In the Santa Clarita Valley, that means that of the roughly 60 percent of local high school graduates who attend COC at some point, about 90 percent don’t test into college-level courses, according to figures cited at a recent COC board meeting.

“A very high percentage of (William S. Hart Union High School) District students are testing just one level below entry level,” said Barry Gribbons, vice president of instructional development and technology for COC.

And the learning gap between high school graduation expectations and college entry-level expectations is by no means isolated to the Santa Clarita Valley.

“The disconnect is something that’s noticeable nationwide. It’s noticeable across California,” Gribbons said. “It’s been (an issue) for more than 10 years, and not just with COC and the Hart district, but nationwide.”

Completing the requirements for high school graduation alone is not enough to prepare a student for college, said Dave LeBarron, director of curriculum for the Hart district, which takes in all public junior high and high schools in the Santa Clarita Valley.

There are a number of factors involved.

First, parents and students need to understand there is a difference between doing what’s necessary to graduate and doing what’s necessary to move on to college, LeBarron said.

Most high schools in the Hart district require parents to sign permission slips allowing their children to bypass a third year of math or a fourth year of English. But there’s no districtwide mandate.

While only two years of math are mandated in high school, students who hope to succeed in college need to take all four, LeBarron said.

“You can’t sit out and do no math for two years and then expect to place into an entry-level (college) math course,” he said.

Language arts barrier

As for college English expectations, a lot of high school English courses don’t simulate the college experience, LeBarron said.

Most high school English classes focus on reading comprehension and literature, which are required by state guidelines.

But unless a student is a literature major, most college English courses focus on writing, not reading or literature.

High school officials are aware of this discrepancy, but there’s not much that can be done because a course focus is determined by the state.

When COC creates curricula, it’s essentially taking what the California State University system and the University of California system require and reverse-engineering courses to ensure students meet university expectations, said Audrey Green, associate vice president of academic affairs at COC.

High schools don’t have this same flexibility due to state law.

“Our accountability is tied to (standardized testing),” LeBarron said, noting current standards have been in place since 1997.

It’s an issue that COC and Hart district educators have been working on cooperatively with a volunteer group that meets to address curriculum alignment, Green said.

“We talk about norming, grading, here’s what you as a student can do to be better prepared,” Green said. “I think it helps with collegiality — that we’re kind of all in this together.”

The volunteer group of teachers and professors has helped develop more writing courses for seniors, LeBarron said.

And there are changes on the horizon.

Standardized solutions

For the 2014-15 school year, the state Board of Education is mandating schools adopt new standards as part of a national effort to standardize high school curriculum known as the Common Core Standards Initiative.

The plan, which Hart district officials are already preparing for, addresses the deficiencies in the state’s language arts and math lesson plans, LeBarron said.

Meanwhile, COC and other community colleges are designing classes aimed at getting students through remedial courses and into college-level courses as quickly as possible.

High school graduates who place in courses below college entry level can be discouraged by the unexpected time and expense required to bring them up to basic expectations.

“That’s one of the biggest challenges we are facing,” said James Glapa-Grossklag, dean of educational technology and learning resources, “how to get students from the remedial courses to the meat-and-potatoes courses of their degree paths.”


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