Breaking Away


IT IS OF the stranger details of our culture that a single rise of passage--he transition from high school to college--consumes such a disproportionate of national energy, money and attention.

To channel estimated 1.5 million high school seniors to college, 25,000 secondary schools employ tens of thousands of college guidance counselor. The 3500 or more institutions that will receive them--private and public, two-year and four-year, scholarly, technical and vocational--rely on tens of thousands of admissions officers. Central agencies like the College Board and American College Testing, administer 2.5 million standardized tests a year. And annual public and institutional sending to match students with college totals.

But as educators are increasingly realizing, America's tunnel vision towards that one timespan has cost it dearly. Colleges across the nation are reporting illiteracy and academic incompetence to be so high among high school graduates that at least one school, the University of Texas at Austin, has begun matching many "no go" 18-year-olds back for tune-up math work. The dismaying caliber of the nation's pre-freshmen has spawned two curriculum reform proposals that promise a return to the days when high school grads could be counted on to do simple arithmetic and read had signs. But one panacea suffers from dreamy idealism, and the other will work only if America can somehow shake free from the tyrant of its college admissions process.

That process, centering around the tenet that students should be able to pick among a variety of colleges, thrived through he 1940s and 1950s. No national agency, as in other nations, supervised college matriculation; the decentralized system worked because enrollment was still manageable.

Then came the baby boom, affirmative action, and a heightened perception of the necessity of college for success. Enrollment skyrocketed, and the American admissions process increasingly moved towards the free-for-all it looks like today. No one insured that the growing number of high schools were churning out graduates with even remotely similar qualifications.


Until recently, admissions officers worried about reaching more and more students and about treating disadvantaged ones fairly. Those ideals bred issues of fairness, like the long-standing disputes over bias in standardized tests and over "truth in testing." Today, those concerns are being eclipsed by another, suddenly ascendant goal: improving the sorry preparation of more and more college applicants. Just as it became obvious in recent years that those tests often only highlighted socio-economic differences among high-schoolers, it is becoming clear that many admissions problems--like the awesome need for remediation--couldn't be solved just by today's limited admissions process alone. The problems of deficient preparation must be attacked at a much earlier point, like grade school.

The deficiencies are stark, indeed. The state of Georgia, for instance, recently had to adopt a "floor score" for all state university applicants to try add boost standards. The minimal requirement: a student had to score 250 on either the math or verbal component of the SAT. Even so, state laws set aside a number of places for disadvantaged students who can't qualify. "That ain't much of a minimum," allows a state Board of Regents official.

The SATs provide another example. A few years ago the test's sponsors, hoping against hope, ran a statistical study to determine if some "drift" in the SAT score scale might account for the steadily declining median national scores. They found a drift, all right--but it went in the wrong direction. The upward drift indicated the score decline was even more severe than it looked.

And even though some colleges are hurting for students, many are becoming alarmed enough at the quality of the applicants. More and more need extensive and costly remedial work just to qualify them for introductory courses.

WITH COLLEGE ADMISSIONS a hot topic of three years' standing, educators have found it difficult to shift their perspectives from that pre-college transition. Yet that's exactly what the current crisis of quality so desperately demands. Consequently, old-school admissions officials try to deal with today's deficiencies by tinkering with the admissions process, blindly hoping that high schools' traditional admissions anxiety will prompt them to upgrade their curricula.

Large public universities, for instance, are suddenly raising or establishing cutoff scores and grades for admission. That practice has ing been considered too rigid, and hence unfair. In an even blunter attempt to spur high schools to action, some systems, like California's are adopting specific curricular requirements. They're refusing to consider anyone without a set number of years in English, math, and so forth. Others are considering shifting their admissions emphasis to Achievement Tests, rather than SATs, and that, too, is adding to the momentum of attempted curriculum manipulation.

Happily, some observers are at last starting to realize that such solutions are essentially superficial. These days, the problems in high school run so deep that no external meddling will mend them. Admission-related measures have no effect on schools whose primary purpose is not to prepare students for college. Yet they're in the worst trouble of all, struggling fiercely just to comply with basic competency requirements. A Mississippi editor wrote in late July that out-of-state recruiters, shifting through the state's high-school graduates for possible jobs, couldn't find enough trainable people to meet their needs.

ONLY TWO RESPONSES have shaken free of the admissions mindset: a painstaking program of "expected learning outcomes" developed by schools and colleges through the College Board, and a self-styled "educational manifesto" by the Paideta Group, master-minded by philosopher and Encyclopedia Britannica scholar Mortimer Adler. Neither, though, is likely to get at the roots of the decline of high-school preparation--college or otherwise.

At one extreme, Adler's The Paideia Proposal offers an impassioned but simplistic reminder of What Education Is For, Proposing that all high school curricula be revamped into a three-column, 12-year approach, Adler advocates attentive teaching of "acquisition of organized knowledge" (history, languages, science, taught by rote); "development of intellectual skills" (reading, speaking, problem-solving, taught by drill); and "enlarged understanding of ideas and values" (works of art and aesthetic appreciation, taught by Socratic discussion).

In his blithe clarion for what he calls the crucial link in education--"highly gifted, strongly motivated teachers"--Adler points up exactly the stumbling block on which previous reform efforts have tumbled. Unfortunately, his scenario is so far in the clouds that it loses all relevance to education's current state. Notes sociologist David Riesman '31, who has taken exception publicly to Paideia's generally positive reception: "Hitching your wagon to a star is one thing, but if the wagon is mired in the mud and the star looks too remote, no one will make the effort to move it."

More down-to-earth have been the efforts of Project Equality's organizers, who hope to get not only college but also high-school representatives to agree on detailed competencies and "learning outcomes" for which to strive. If all educators can agree on what students should know, organizers reason, maybe they can at least start swimming against the downward drift.

It remains to be seen, however, whether anyone will sincerely struggle to teach students "what they should know" for any reason but to get them into colleges. Strictly dictated competencies can always backfire. They did so several years ago in the much-publicized incident of a New Jersey teacher fired for exposing his students to Aritsotle's Poetics to help them study Romeo and Juliet; the school board ruled he was stinting the time reserved for the approved, watered-down exercises in the county syllabus.

Such confusions show how hard it is to improve education once people are firmly in the habit of seeing high school as only a means to a practical end. Getting into college has long been the most obvious of these ends. But its overriding importance has made it harder and harder to conceive of cleaning up pre-college academics for their own sake. Now the urgency and, perhaps, the practical inspirations are there. Curriculum reform could become one of the most valuable projects of the 1980s--but not unless educators and the public can shake off their obsession with that one crucial, transitional year.