Best and brightest U.S. students are increasingly ill-prepared, colleges report

December 27, 1992|By Boston Globe

While widespread attention in recent years has been focuse on the woeful performance of the country's low-achieving students, faculty members at many of the nation's most prestigious institutions say an increasing number of the highest-ranked students arrive at college poorly prepared.

Many of these top-flight students are incapable of writing a coherent paragraph, university educators say. They often have trouble understanding college textbooks and lack basic historical knowledge.

"It can be downright depressing," Jaroslav Pelikan says of the caliber of students filling his classroom seats. For example, many of them, says the Yale professor of medieval history, have no idea where to find Belgrade, capital of the former Yugoslavia, on a map.

"There is a general alarm among faculty that students today just can't do the same kind of work that students could do 10 or 15 years ago," said Richard Rosser, executive director of the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, which represents most of the nation's private colleges. "They are not as rigorously trained, particularly in the communicative skills -- the ability to write, the ability to speak."

Scores on the verbal half of the Scholastic Achievement Test as well as on the National Assessment of Education Progress buttress the assertion that top-ranking high school seniors are less well-schooled today than their counterparts of the recent past.

For example, in 1972, 116,630 students nationwide scored 600 or above -- of the maximum possible 800 -- on the verbal section of the SAT, compared with 74,836 last year, according to data from the College Board, which administers the examination. The number of students taking the SAT has remained constant at about 1 million.

Fewer 17-year-old students reach proficiency levels in reading today than in 1971 on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, according to a report released last year by the Educational Testing Service. About 7 percent of students in 1971 could comprehend what they read, compared with a little more than 4 percent today.

Although mathematics scores on the SAT are up slightly since 1971 after dipping greatly in the 1980s, educators find the reading trend distressing.

"We find that this presents students even in the best schools with the need to really catch up and do, quite frankly, what they should have learned in high school," Mr. Rosser said. "That, in turn, reflects on the very spotty situation in regard to the kindergarten-through-12th-grade system across the country."

The downward trend is likely to intensify the pressure for improvement in public school systems. But the implications are broader for the future of the country, some suggest. The nation's economic viability is undermined by the slippage in the preparation of the best and the brightest, who do not match up as well against students from other nations, several scholars said.

"Until we begin to demand higher standards all the way along, one wonders what this augurs for this country in the coming years," Mr. Rosser said. "Clearly we have to raise up the ability of the whole work force if we are going to thrive in the global economy."

But Peter Sack, principal of Swampscott (Mass.) High School and president of the Massachusetts Secondary School Administrators Association, defended the performance of high schools in preparing college-bound seniors.

"The kids who come back to visit us, we ask them how well we prepared them compared to the prep school kids that they know," said Mr. Sack, who said some of his seniors have gone on to Ivy League schools. "They give us pretty good marks. Could we be doing better? Absolutely. Could everybody be doing better? Absolutely. I graduated from Swampscott High in 1963, and our kids are doing more in sophomore year of high school than I was doing in sophomore year at Bowdoin College in Maine."

But some educators say that one of the main reasons students with high intellectual aptitudes are so ill-prepared for college is that not enough is demanded of them in high school. For example, the typical college-bound senior reads only 65 pages a week, even in advanced placement courses, or less than 10 pages per night, according to research conducted by the National Center on Literature Teaching and Learning at the State University of New York at Albany.

"I've had students coming out of good suburban schools who told me they weren't even asked to read one book [during their] senior year," said Daniel J. Singal, a history professor at Hobart and William Smith College in Geneva, N.Y.

Another factor contributing to the shoddy preparation of top students is an increase in class sizes as a result of budget problems, educators say. Teachers cannot devote as much time to challenging individual students to achieve their potential. To accommodate large classes filled with youngsters of varying ability, teachers often are forced to water down the curriculum to ensure that even the least capable students can do the work, educators say.

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