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What Schools and Students Can Do to Foster College Readiness

If schools and students understand college readiness in a more comprehensive way, they can do more to develop the full range of capabilities and skills needed to succeed in college. At the heart of this definition is the notion that those most interested in college success will change their behaviors based on the greater guidance the definition offers on how to be college ready.

The following section discusses some of the changes that could occur in high schools and on the part of students to achieve better and more complete readiness for college.

Create a culture focused on intellectual development

Using these criteria, the most important thing a high school can do is create a culture focused on intellectual development of all students. Intellectual development has several elements.

The first element involves students interacting with appropriately important and challenging academic content. For students to do so requires that the school have an intellectually coherent program of study that is systematically designed to focus on what Wiggins and McTeague (1998) describe as the "big ideas" of each subject area taught. They then teach those big ideas by exposing students to a series of "enduring" and "supporting understandings" that create an overall intellectual and cognitive structure for the content, a structure that can span multiple courses and grade levels but that is revisited by students each time a new course within that area is taught.

Second, key cognitive strategies should be developed over a sequentially more challenging progression throughout four years of high school. If the content of the program of study is carefully organized around the kinds of key organizing and supporting concepts and information as described previously, it is then possible to use this structure of challenging and appropriate content as a framework for developing thinking and reasoning skills and other supporting cognitive habits that will affect success in college as much or perhaps even more than any specific content knowledge students acquire.

Third, the academic program should be structured to cause students to demonstrate progressively more control and responsibility for their learning as they approach the college level. This does not necessarily mean students have more choices over what they learn, but rather they are expected to work independently and semi-independently outside of class on progressively larger, more complex pieces of work. For example, students need to become better at critiquing their own work and then rewriting or modifying that work so that it conforms more closely to expected performance and output.

The reason the intellectual climate of the school is a central element in college readiness is because the school can control this variable directly and relatively completely if its teachers and administrators choose to do so. Furthermore, this is an area that teachers and administrators often fail to address consciously, instead allowing students to dictate the intellectual tone and tenor of the school. In such environments, little thought is given to how students are developing intellectually from course to course or year to year, or what is happening in any given course to cause such development to occur.

The result is that students often enter their senior year of high school believing they are ready for college because they have completed required courses. This leads to the development of particularly bad study habits and skills during the senior year (Conley, 2001; Kirst, 2000; National Commission on the High School Senior Year, 2001). In this fashion, the lack of a coherent, developmentally sequenced program of study also contributes to deficiencies in other key areas, including study skills and time management. In fact, it is difficult to imagine a preparation program that emphasizes time management and study skills but does not sequence challenge levels that develop these skills progressively from year to year.

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Specify core knowledge and skills

As noted above, the school must organize its curriculum in each subject area around a set of core concepts and supporting information. The goal is to have students develop an understanding of the structure of the discipline and to retain specific content knowledge within this structure.

To facilitate this organization of knowledge, the school must be prepared to adopt a formal set of exit standards that specify what students will know and be able to do in each of the core academic areas. These standards need not be detailed to the level of stating each and every piece of knowledge that a student has mastered, but should be comprehensive enough to identify the big ideas and supporting knowledge necessary to comprehend each big idea fully and completely. These standards can be considered "keystone" expectations that clearly infer the mastery of significant subordinate skills and knowledge necessary to achieve them.

This sort of a structure facilitates a more logical progression and development of knowledge mastery over four years of high school in place of the isolated course-based model that currently exists. At the same time, the exit standards do not necessarily mandate or require any particular organizational structure or instructional strategy. Schools remain free to organize the instructional program in the way they see fit to ensure student mastery of the keystone knowledge.

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Provide necessary supports to students

In addition to key cognitive strategies and important content knowledge, students need specialized information in order to access the college admission system. Given the decentralized nature of US postsecondary education, high schools are the only place where all students have the opportunity to come into contact with information on the complexities of college preparation and application. High schools are responsible to make this information available to all students, not just those who seek it out. This means incorporating college readiness activities into the routines and requirements of the school.

For example, students need to know about college requirements and financial aid options. They need to understand the application process. In fact, an increasing number of high schools that serve high proportions of students who would be first generation college attenders are requiring all students to apply to at least one college during the fall semester of their senior year. Students need experience preparing a resume or other summary document that profiles their activities and accomplishments.

They need familiarity with the financial aid system and its attendant timelines and documentation requirements. They need to understand the tiered nature of postsecondary education in the US and how some institutions are more demanding and selective in their admissions processes, while others are more open and accept essentially all applicants. They need to understand that different kinds of colleges appeal to different kinds of learning styles and interests and that the majors a college offers is an important element in picking a college. They need to know all of the various deadlines and required paperwork, such as letters of recommendation or transcripts.

Finally, they need to understand the role of admissions tests, such as the SAT and ACT, as well as AP, IB, and others, along with any dual enrollment options the state and school may make available.

All of this information is necessary for students to make good decisions about college preparation and to demystify the process. Many students give up simply because they feel intimidated or overwhelmed by all of the requirements and activities associated with applying to college. Others may lack the maturity necessary to see as far into the future as the college preparation and application process requires. Activities to break this process down into manageable pieces that students master automatically as they move through high school will help increase the number of applicants and their subsequent success getting admitted to and succeeding in college.

While these activities are not very effective if conducted in isolation from the academic program, they are an important component of an overall environment in which students develop the full set of knowledge and skills necessary for college success, including intellectual capabilities and thinking skills, complex and appropriate content, and knowledge of the system of college preparation, application, and admission.

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Provide necessary supports to teachers

To teach an intellectually challenging class, teachers must be properly prepared and equipped with the understandings of their subject area necessary to evoke in students the desired responses to material, responses designed to deepen their engagement with and understanding of key course concepts and to expand their repertoire of thinking skills and strategies. Teachers must have a reference point for college readiness that extends beyond their own previous experiences in college or self reports from the few students who return to share their post-high school experiences in college.

The necessary support ideally takes the form of professional development activities in which teachers learn to focus their curricula on key ideas and supporting concepts and to teach these through techniques, activities, and assignments that require students to develop the key cognitive strategies necessary for college success. Such activities are often best undertaken in partnership with colleagues from postsecondary institutions. They can include seminars on recent developments in the academic field, debate and discussions of controversial ideas in the subject area, critiques of potential student assignments, and reviews of student writing and a consideration of strategies to improve writing.

These activities need not be didactic in nature, with the postsecondary faculty possessing all the answers and the high school faculty viewed as being in need of enlightenment. Instead, these sessions can be collaborative and collegial in nature. While such sessions ideally begin with face-toface interactions, they can be sustained and continued through the use of online discussion boards and other electronic means that help faculty build and strengthen connections across the system boundaries.

While every high school teacher may not necessarily participate in such activities, a critical mass will have a transformative effect on the academic culture and norms of the high school. Expectations for what constitutes current teacher knowledge of the subject will be transformed along with the level of challenge and rigor in courses. In the past, the Advanced Placement program attempted to achieve this goal through sessions that did very much what was described previously. This worked well when the AP community was small and close knit. The recent rapid expansion of AP has stretched the fabric of this community to some degree and made it more difficult to sustain the type of intellectual interaction that is needed.

Additionally, AP teachers often did not share their experiences with other high school faculty, which resulted in AP courses having a different tenor to them than the rest of the curriculum. This now needs to change so that the new and expanded AP offerings at many school can serve as a reference point for an infusion of ideas and techniques that better prepare all students for college, whether they take an actual AP course.

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