A recent Newsday report written by John Hilderbrand revealed a disturbing trend in American education. According to the article, the Manhattan-based College Board, publishers of college admissions tests like the SAT, GMAT and GRE, released figures showing that just 43 percent of American high school seniors were “well-prepared” for studies at a four year college.
The College Board also noted a 40- year low in average national reading scores.
So much for that ideal of progress. As Hilderbrand wrote: “The average score on the exam’s ‘critical reading’ section among this year’s college-bound seniors dropped to 496 points, down one point from last year and 34 points from 1972. Each of the SAT’s three sections — critical reading, writing and mathematics — is scored on a range of 200 to 800.”
The one bright spot of the College Board’s dismal revelations was that math scores had stayed the same — a dismal 514.
“When less than half of kids who want to go to college are prepared to do so, that system is failing,” Gaston Caperton, president of the College Board, told Hildebrand.
Caperton has an obvious talent for understatement. Just imagine if that same nonchalant laxity extended into other realms. Would you want less than half of the nation’s doctors, engineers and pilots to be competent to attempt their chosen vocation? While the comparison isn’t exact, college requires the same commitment and attention as any other job. Sending droves of ill-prepared students into America’s institutions of higher learning ensures a broad culture of remedial study. This in turn, transforms colleges from “higher learning” to “retrograde teaching.” In other words, it hinders what should be the primary purpose of the institution by requiring it to devote precious resources to a fixed game of catch-up.
To be clear, it is not contended here that people should be excluded from college because they lack the basic skills necessary for the enterprise. Rather, it is that these underprepared students should either be funneled into junior colleges, vocational training or some other interstitial institution. By watering down and otherwise softening the curriculum just so everybody gets to attend is the educational equivalent of t-ball — just stand there and swing until you hit something, we’ll wait.
This also penalizes those student who do come prepared. They are offered fewer courses because room must be made for remedial classes. They have lower access to faculty and can expect less individualized attention.
Many will argue that this position is classist, that it discriminates against the poor — who are often raised in flagging public schools. That line of contention misses the fact that higher education is meant to serve as both a training ground for professionals and as a mark of greater achievement. It is in the ideal, an academic meritocracy. As above, no competent person should be excluded, but we clearly need a different system for deciding who gets to enter the system at what level.
As it now stands, American universities are increasingly graduating people who have only mastered that which they should have mastered before matriculation. Just as we have largely surrendered manufacturing to foreign concerns, we stand poised to surrender academic and intellectual pursuits to the same alien constituency. Unless we are content to become a nation vulnerable to the intellect and industry of others, we must make some hard choices about education. Chief among them is the jagged truth that our public schools are on the precipice of failure.