Md. students not ready for college

June 06, 2007

Editor's note: This essay, which takes the place of Thomas F. Schaller's regular Wednesday column, was co-written by University of Maryland, Baltimore County students in a seminar on political rhetoric co-taught by Professor Schaller and former Sun cartoonist Kevin Kallaugher, who produced the accompanying graphic based on students' input.

Graduation season is here, and we are still a few years away from crossing the stage to receive our diplomas. Getting there will not be easy, and the unfortunate truth is that Maryland's public high schools - where 15 of the 17 of us were educated - did not adequately prepare us for college.

The problem is not what topics we learned but how we were taught. Standards are important, but we believe standardization has ill-prepared us to perform on the kinds of quizzes and exams administered by our professors. Despite coming to UMBC with solid high school grade point averages, many of us struggled during our first semester.

We don't really blame our high school teachers, because we understand the mixed motives they face. What's best for the students is not always what's good for the teachers and administrators, who must meet complex national standards while competing for state funding.

Advanced Placement courses are a perfect example of the cross purposes at work in Maryland's high schools.

On the one hand, AP courses allow students to gain college credits while in high school and better prepare themselves for college. Studies show that students taking college preparatory courses receive better college grades and graduate at higher rates than students who do not.

In the state's public school graduating Class of 2006, 33.5 percent of students took an AP exam in high school, well above the national average of 24.2 percent. Since 2001, the number of Maryland public school students taking AP courses has more than doubled, and the rates of increase are even higher for black and Latino students.

These statistics are encouraging but perhaps misleading. County school boards try to steer as many students as possible into AP coursework. Some of us observed fellow students being strongly discouraged from dropping AP courses even though they stood little chance of passing the exams.

Federal testing standards are compounding those state pressures.

Intended to improve performance, the 2002 No Child Left Behind law rewards or penalizes schools based on test scores. Instead of encouraging creative styles of teaching to activate critical thinking skills in students, schools must teach students how to perform well on standardized exams.

Scores are improving because teachers teach to the tests. We were taught how to write essays based on what the people grading the tests were looking for. We were taught how to take apart the questions to figure out the answers.

In effect, rather than learning how to think critically, we were taught how to pass exams.

In a January 2006 speech at North Glen Elementary School in Glen Burnie, commemorating the fourth anniversary of NCLB's passage, President Bush pronounced the law a great success. "The system is working," said the president, citing rising achievement levels at North Glen, in Maryland and nationally. "How do we know? Because we're measuring." This may sound like good news, but improved test performance is no guarantee of success in college, where tests vary depending on the course and professor.

A liberal education is supposed to expose students to a wide variety of subjects. On our campus, students can major in everything from philosophy to informational science, mathematics to visual arts. Students can even create their own specialized, interdisciplinary major. We are blessed with a feast of subjects and courses from which to choose.

The famine is the analytical skills and training we brought to campus with us. In this new century, a liberal education demands more than standardized preparation for an anything-but-standardized college experience.

The student co-authors of this article are William Archer, Colleen Bush, Katrina Cohen, Julie Dalnekoff, Christopher Davis, Elena Debold, Odessa Etienne, Wayne Heavener, Syedmohomad Jafri, Michelle Kessler, Sadaf Khan, An Lin, Matt Mora, Anna Retherford, Nikki Webster, Brett Wooldridge and Ye Zhang.

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