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Archive for the ‘College Preparation’ Category

An April 2019 study, Academic Skill Deficiencies in four Ontario universities, has sent shock waves through the Canadian K-12 school system.  That study, spearheaded by two leading sociologists, York University’s J. Paul Grayson and Western University’s James Cote, has shone fresh light on a previously identified problem — growing evidence that secondary schools feeding universities are falling well short in addressing students’ skills deficiencies. What’s most surprising is that, over the past 15-years, dramatically rising graduation rates have not translated into improvements in students’ academic skills.

First year university and college professors have long complained about the quality of students entering their institutions.  This study, conducted at four Ontario universitiesYork, Western, Waterloo and Toronto, which together enrol 41 per cent of Ontario undergraduates — confirms much of the accumulated evidence. The researchers found that “only about 44 per cent of students felt they had the generic skills needed to do well in their academic studies, 41 per cent could be classified as at risk in academic settings because of limited levels of basic skills, and 16 per cent lacked almost all the skills needed for higher learning.”

This study was borne out of the sheer frustration experienced by Grayson and his York University colleague Robert Kenedy in trying to teach undergraduate Social Science students at York University. Their bias was clear – far too many appeared mostly unprepared for the demands of higher education, particularly in critical thinking, academic research and competent writing.  In late 2017 they surveyed 22,000 students from all disciplines and levels of study enrolled in the faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies at York. Their questionnaire posed 50 questions to students of all demographic backgrounds. The key skill questions focused on writing ability, test-taking, analysis, time and group management, research, giving presentations and elemental numeracy. A year later, the same survey was performed at the three other universities cited. The results were remarkably consistent in all four universities.

University student reading in classroom

Such research findings shock Ontario educational leadership because they run completely counter to the prevailing assumption that Ontario’s K-12 school system ranks among the best in the world. Academic skill deficiencies of secondary school graduates, all too evident to first year university instructors and employers, too often escape the attention of those overseeing the system and PSE admissions offices looking to fill seats. It’s aptly named – the “big disconnect” –– referring to the growing gap between high school attainment and actual, demonstrable student achievement.

Critics of today’s “graduate everyone” school systems find confirmation in this study of their oft-repeated claim that the secondary-school system is “failing to meet basic pedagogical objectives” and “failing to cull incompetent students.” That is not really new because it was all flagged a decade ago in two academic critiques, co-authored by James Cote,  Ivory Tower Blues (2007) and Lowering Higher Education (2011). Back then, professors expressed grave concerns about students unable to accept criticism or remain engaged and conceded that they had dumbed down their courses and reduced the frequency of tests and assignments. What the most recent study shows is that not much has changed.

Far too many of today’s secondary school graduates are not only unprepared for university studies, but panic-stricken by the academic expectations.  One of Grayson and Kenedy’s students provided a sad example of this latest iteration of the problem: “IM IN FIRST YEAR AND IM DOING SO BAD AND IM SO SCARED BC IM FINDING IT REALLY HARD TO MANAGE MY TIME AND MY ANXIETY HAS GOTTEN SO BAD AND IDK WHAT TO DO AND IM SCARED OF GETTING KICKED OUT AND IM JUST SCARED.”

Two new dimensions have emerged that deserve more serious research and analysis: the radical differences in the quality of among secondary schools and the impact of academic acceleration programs, most notably the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma Program. From what we know, university admissions offices now “rate high schools” on a top secret quality index and much prefer graduates applying with transcripts requiring far more rigorous academic courses. Both trends are indicative of a further ‘devaluation’ of the standard provincial graduation diploma.

Today’s students applying to university tend to have significantly inflated grades. That is why some universities do attempt to assess the relative quality of students graduating from various high schools, comparing incoming grades with those at the end of first year. In October 2018, a confidential report prepared for the University of Waterloo Engineering Program was uncovered that documented the existence of an “adjustment factor” used to determine which students were admitted into their top ranked, highly competitive program.

The downward adjustment factors applied to final marks from Ontario high schools averaged 16 percent, ranging from a low of 9.9 per cent (L’Amoreaux Collegiate, Agincourt) to a high of 27.5 per cent (Grimsby SS).  Students graduating from some other provinces fared worse;   New Brunswick applicants saw their marks downgraded by 24.5 per cent, meaning students applying with a 90 per cent average would be credited with only a 65.5 per cent by the University of Waterloo.

The academic skills deficits identified by the April 2019 study do not seem to apply to students applying with IB mark transcripts. Students graduating with the full International Baccalaureate Diploma (IBDP) are the most sought-after by Canadian universities, particularly in highly selective university programs leading to professional studies. In the case of Nova Scotia, IB university applicants now have their grades raised so as not to penalize them in competition with students from regular, non-IB high schools.

Four top Canadian universities, University of Toronto, University of British Columbia, McGill University, and the University of Alberta actively seek students applying with IB graduation transcripts. Students admitted with the IB Diploma do perform better in first year of university. Entry level grades are maintained because IB grades based upon IB external examinations are far more reliable as better predictors of four-year college outcomes.

One authoritative 2014 study, conducted by Andrew Arida for the University of British Columbia, demonstrated that IB admissions candidates possess more highly developed academic skills than those from regular non-IB high schools. They are particularly strong in reading comprehension (+25%), mastering research skills (+ 26%), making presentations ( +25%), clarity and effectiveness in writing ( +20%), and appreciation of racial and ethnic diversity (+13 %). This advantage is sustained to the end of first year university.  Those IB graduates were also more likely to participate in volunteering, join university clubs, and assist by tutoring other students.

Why are such a high proportion of today’s university-bound students in Ontario and elsewhere across Canada showing academic skills deficits?  What’s happened to the value of a secondary school graduation diploma in university, college and presumably the workplace? Why do provincial ministries, university leaders and school administrators greet reports on academic skills deficits with a deafening silence? Who is monitoring and addressing the identified inequities in levels of secondary school preparedness for higher education? Without academic acceleration programs like the IB, would matters be worse? 

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Bridge building can provide a rather unconventional source of educational reform insights. All bridges built over water –and constructed with the expert advice of a construction engineer — need “a foundation which is rested on the bed.”  Solid foundations, therefore, are critical to successful bridge-building projects.

School, college and workplace are far too often islands separated by hard to traverse expanses of water. Building bridges for high school leavers involves far more than simply clearing a path and creating easier off-ramps. It should involve paying far more attention to the cardinal principle of bridge building science — sound foundations matter.

BridgeBuildingPhotoA recent Nova Scotia Transition Task Force report, From School to Success: Clearing the Path, released June 21, 2016, looks well-intended, but appears to have missed the most critical piece — shoring-up the foundations on both sides of the bridge.  With youth unemployment hovering above the Canadian national average, the task force focused mostly on repairing the bridges, providing more program supports, and better career counselling.  It even proposed that high school graduates take a “gap year” on their own, presumably to acquire the requisite job-ready skills and work ethic.

How well prepared students were for success in college and the workplace was not really addressed in the Task Force report. When pressed to explain what employers were looking for, the notable silence was filled by one Task Force member. Andrea Marsman of the Nova Scotia Black Educators Association. “There are issues around deadlines and attendance and work ethic,” she told CBC Nova Scotia News. “They were saying that over the past several years they’ve seen a decline of respect for those particular principles of work ethic.”

Boring into the report, the problem with the educational foundation of the K-12 level pillar comes into sharper relief.  While high school graduation rates soar above 85%, only four in 10 university students complete their degree within four years. Thirty per cent never complete their university studies at all. At the community college level, 32 per cent don’t come back after their first year of study.

Raising graduation rates has been the priority in Nova Scotia , Ontario, and elsewhere for the past decade or so.  School promotion policies and “no fail” student assessment practices have significantly raised retention levels.  In spite of this, about five per cent of Nova Scotia students drop out in grade 11, unable to collect a graduation diploma. Those who do leave before graduation, it is clear, are totally unprepared for the daily discipline/grind and rigors of the workplace.

The Nova Scotia Task Force report simply accepts the current status quo — trying to help high school dropouts to graduate. While it is true that dropouts are twice as likely to be unemployed, and college dropouts are have 3 % higher unemployment rates, the report does not really confront the the quality and preparedness of students leaving the system.  Instead, the Task Force recommended making it easier to graduate and funding more school-to-workplace bridge programs.

BridgingNSedReviewThe Transition Task Force recommendations completely flew in the face of the most recent evidence on employer satisfaction with Nova Scotia student graduates.  In the Nova Scotia Education Review survey, released in October 2014, only 38% of the 2,309 community members surveyed felt that students were “well prepared” for college or university, and fewer still, some 18%, felt they were well prepared for the workforce (p. 35).  Only one of three of the community respondents found students “well prepared” to move onto the next grade, so that is hardly an earthshaking revelation (p. 31).

The answers to the critical questions of preparedness and what today’s workplace demands may not be squarely addressed in the Nova Scotia report, but they are in a pertinent American study, produced in January 2014 by Bentley University researchers.  Just as in Nova Scotia and other provinces, the business sector concerns that today’s college graduates aren’t properly prepared are not going away.  What is changing is the willingness of U.S. colleges and universities to grapple with and address the core issue – improving the core competencies, skills, and work ethic of graduates.

The PreparedU Millennial Preparedness Survey questioned 3,000 respondents across nine audiences and examined skills, traits, use of technology, workplace attitudes and expectations, along with opinions of executives about millennials and vice versa, and much more. It directly addressed the preparedness problem and found a surprising consensus around the source of the problem – a lack of focus on developing strong character, determination, resilience and work ethic. It also found students’ self-perceptions, fostered in schools, to be out of line with those of employers.  Most alarming of all, businesses surveyed found graduates unprepared or unemployable, but seemingly confident in their own abilities.

Thirty-five percent of surveyed U.S. business leaders reported recent graduates they have hired would get a “C” or lower for preparation, if graded. However, they didn’t believe the fault rested entirely with students. Many businesses claimed that “soft skills” were highly valued, but their hiring decisions demonstrated otherwise, showing a clear preference for those with “hard skills,” such as technology training or apprenticeship certificates.

Just over half of business decision-makers and 43 percent of corporate recruiters surveyed said the business community itself deserves a “C” or lower on how well they are preparing recent grads for their first jobs. They also acknowledged that many businesses are not training new hires like they used to, leaving career colleges and private companies to fill the gaps.

School-college-workplace bridges will not be built in a day, nor will they be repaired by tinkering with, or extending, existing programs. Education department reports, like the June 2016 Nova Scotia Task Force study, tend to avoid going to the root of the preparedness problem. Looking at the membership of the Transitions Task Force, it is easy to see why.  Of the seventeen appointed members, the vast majority have a stake in the current system, only two were from business or industry and only one was a teacher in the K-12 school system.

What can school authorities wrestling with school-college-workplace transitions learn from bridge building science?  Why is the preparedness problem so difficult to tackle?  How can you assess the preparedness of high school and college graduates without systematically surveying job seekers or prospective employers? 

 

 

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