What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready? The Mathematics and English Literacy Required of First Year Community College Students

Community colleges, which educate 45 percent of the country’s college students, are a key source of vocational education and a launching pad for students headed off to four-year institutions—and according to this report from the National Center on Education and the Economy, they are in crisis. A group of English language arts and math experts examined course materials (including syllabi, textbooks, graded exams, and assignments) in seven randomly selected community colleges in seven states. The authors found that most programs demand little to no use of math—and when they do, the math is almost exclusively at a middle school level. This finding flies in the face of the common reckoning that Algebra 2 is a prerequisite for success in college and career. They also find that instructors in applied math programs frequently devise their own materials, since students are so often not taught in elementary or secondary schools the specific skills needed to succeed in those courses. Further, math tests mainly focused on mastery of facts and procedures, rather than applying concepts and thinking mathematically. The ELA findings were equally grim: While the reading complexity of texts used in introductory courses hovers around the eleventh- and twelfth-grade level, these courses have high failure rates, suggesting that these texts are still too complex. What’s more, the instructors make little use of the texts verbatim, opting instead to use videos, outlines, and PowerPoint presentations to convey the critical points of the texts. Students are asked to do very little writing; and when they do write, the expectations for reasoning, logic, and even grammar are quite low. Colleges teaching middle school math and college students failing with high school–level texts? This is bad news all around, and begs the question: Is college worth the investment for these students at all?

SOURCE: National Center on Education and the Economy, What Does It Really Mean to Be College and Work Ready? The Mathematics and English Literacy Required of First Year Community College Students (Washington, D.C.: National Center on Education and the Economy, May 2013).

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