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Are High School Grads Ready to Write at the College Level? Nope.


Most high school teachers I have met believe that one of their critical responsibilities is to help their students become better writers.
Scores on the ACT writing tests tell us that students entering high school are not very well prepared in writing. Add to this that state colleges and universities are often placing as many as 30% of their students in remedial, general education courses if they cannot pass basic writing requirements. Further, according to research by ACT (which was presented at a conference I attended yesterday sponsored by ACT), there is a disconnect between what high school teachers believe high education wants them to do, and what they actually do.
The ACT survey research indicated that high school teachers want their students to develop their voice, to analyze multiple perspectives, and write longer papers. College professors, on the other hand, would prefer that high school teachers focus on mechanics and presenting a single, coherent thesis.
An article in this week’s Education Week reinforces this point. Steven Horwitz, a professor at St. Lawrence University in New York, picks up on the ACT research. He summarizes it this way:

Teachers of the students who graduated from American high schools in the spring may think that their charges are well prepared for the colleges they are entering this fall, but the professors who will greet them on campus disagree, according to a recent national survey.
The differences in perception among the 6,568 teachers and professors who responded to the survey, conducted by the educational testing organization ACT Inc., were apparent in virtually every college-preparatory subject.
Perhaps most significantly, the high school teachers surveyed had more confidence that their students were prepared to handle the fundamentals of writing–basic grammar, sentence structure, and punctuation–than the college professors did.

My own experience as a college professor bears this out. While I wanted to help students advance their thinking about political science or international relations, I often had a difficult time wading through tortured prose, run-on sentences, and butchered punctuation to get at their ideas. Many–even at a private university like the University of Denver–had difficulty expressing themselves using proper form. If the learned the basics of expository writing in high school, they seem to have forgotten everything by the time they entered my classroom. Of course, some students were elegant writers. But they constituted the minority.
Horwitz also bemoans the fact that students do not know how to undertake the most basic research, even though they may have been assigned “research papers” in high school. I bemoaned this, too, in my students’ writing…to the point I had to create research projects that did not include writing at all–just so I could teach them how to find and interpret information from a wide variety of resources.
In addition to calling for increased attention to the mechanics of good writing, Horwitz makes some excellent suggestions for high school teachers as they prepare their students for college writing and research. They bear repeating.

Begin to gauge the research process itself, but in short, focused assignments that help students become comfortable recognizing and evaluating the different types of sources and the differences between the Web and library databases.
Use short assignments that ask students to try to identify the various positions that sources take on a controversial topic and the core of their disagreements, even if that does not involve taking a position of their own.
Work with students on the ethical and accurate use of sources before they begin to do actual research, so that they understand that this is not just an “Internet problem” but an obligation central to all the writing they do, whether the sources is a course reading or textbook, or the research materials the find using and old-fashioned paper index or a library database.

I would say that if a student is a good writer by 11th grade, she has a much better chance of writing a solid college application essay. Though I am a consultant helping students present themselves as best they can, there is only so much writing I can teach in the advising process. And ethically, I cannot write students’ essays for them. It pains me when I see clients whose writing is sub-par–who are are not really ready for college-level writing. Even if they get in to the college of their choice, these students will have a hard row to hoe when they do land on a college campus.
Mark Montgomery
Montgomery Educational Consulting
Writing Coach and Teacher

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