From the Lips of High School Graduates: "Challenge Us!"

Much of the sturm und drang over higher-level standards and assessments has been provoked by a theme, often evoked by teacher unions and wealthier parents, that students suffer from undue stress created by overwork, especially in high schools.  For example, in the film “Race to Nowhere” students are portrayed as depleted by the “pressure-cooker” of high school academics: sleep-deprived afflicted by anxiety and depression, even suicidal.  We work them too hard!  The director of the film, Vicki Abeles, wrote last September in USA Today that school should be a place to explore “personal passions, participate in [the] wider community, and connect with friends.”

 The logical extension of this analysis is that responsible parents should opt their kids out of standardized tests and oppose more challenging course standards.

However, this sentiment is disconnected from the reality of high school graduates who are, oftentimes, ill-prepared for college and careers. Hart Research Associates  (sponsored by Achieve) surveyed 767 college instructors and 407 employers who either taught or interviewed 1,347 recent high school graduates.

 Here are some of the results:
In two year colleges, only 4% of faculty members found students “generally able to do what is expected.” In four-year schools, the number was 12%. Fifty-three percent of college students said they were “extremely” or “very” well prepared. Eighteen percent of employers found high school graduates extremely or very well prepared for work. But 17% found graduates “not at all prepared.” 
Students’ preparedness in specific areas of learning was rated and resulted in dismal findings: 82% of instructors found fewer than half of students or none of their students ready to use critical thinking skills; comprehension of complicated materials – 80%; work and study habits – 78%; writing and written communication – 77% and 76%, respectively; problem solving – 76%; conducting research – 74%; math – 59%; science – 53%. 
In 2004, employers said that four out of 10 new employees required more education or training in reading and math. In 2015, the number had risen to six in 10.
And how do the students feel about their high school preparation, pre-Common Core and aligned assessments? “Almost nine in 10 high school graduates said they would have worked harder if expectations for earning a diploma had been higher.” When instructors, employers, and students were asked if they approved or disapproved of requiring students to pass math and writing exams to graduate, 68% instructors approved, 56% of employers approved, and 64% of students approved.

In other words, with the exception of parents portrayed in “Race to Nowhere” and opt-out/teacher union propaganda, all other stakeholders -- including our children -- support higher expectations in high school and aligned testing as a condition of graduation. Maybe it's time that we listen. As Robert Pondiscio wrote last week,
While I have no doubt that for some families, the pressure on kids to achieve and perform are real and a legitimate source of anxiety, the far greater concern is almost certainly the undertaxed American child, who lacks access to rigorous academic coursework, the incentive and opportunities to participate in organized activities, or both. It would be a shame if the concerns of the privileged few—however valid—became the new conventional wisdom. The data speak clearly: Most kids need more enrichment and challenge, not less.