A general disconnect between high school and college instruction is well documented. According to a six-year national study on college readiness from Stanford University, “coursework between high school and college is not connected; students graduate from high school under one set of standards and, three months later, are required to meet a whole new set of standards in college” (Venezia, Kirst, & Antonio, 2003). In the case of writing, one of the central points of disconnect stems from the fact that high school instruction and college instruction typically are based on different models of writing. As a result, students face a different set of expectations and ideas about writing when they enter college, compared with what they learned in high school.
In the 1970s, advances in writing theory began to move pedagogy from a concentration on the end product of writing to the process of writing. Classroom instruction began to emphasize the “complex of activities out of which all writing emerges” — activities such as planning, drafting, and revising (Bizzell, 1986, p. 49). A highly influential model of writing, developed by Flower and Hayes (1981) in the early eighties, described the process of composition in terms of cognitive functions — the mental processes by which decisions are made, ideas are translated into written language, long-term and working memory are engaged, and so forth (Hayes, 1980). By the 1990s, the process model of writing, grounded in cognitive theory, shaped instruction across primary, secondary, and postsecondary education. Indeed, this model continues to be predominant in pre-college instruction. Applebee and Langer (2011) found that over 90 percent of high school English teachers, when they taught composition, employed process-oriented instruction, teaching specific strategies for planning, organizing, drafting, and revising. (Evidence that these processes are taught using evidence-based instructional practices is mixed, however.)
In higher education, the cognitive theory of writing has been challenged and supplemented by sociocultural theory, a change that has not made its way into most secondary school instruction and assessment. Sociocultural theory accounts for the fact that, whatever cognitive processes are at work in the production of text, writing is always shaped by the particular social and cultural contexts in which it takes place. The writer is always situated within a discourse community, which has its own governing values, shared assumptions, accepted and expected ways of communicating and behaving. In the discourse community of academia, for example, evidence-supported argumentation is a primary, legitimized, and rewarded means for making meaning and persuading others, whereas unsupported opinionating is not. Obtaining an education entails learning to think and communicate in ways established as valuable and acceptable within the academic discourse community.
Each academic discipline, and each classroom, for that matter, forms its own discourse community, while also serving as an instantiation of the larger discourse community of academia. In the most general sense, college equips students for participation in the broader discourse community of educated society, wherein clear, well-reasoned expression and evidence-supported argumentation are effective modes of meaning-making and persuasion.
The sociocultural or “post-process” model of writing does not necessarily reject the cognitive process model, but rather extends it. That is, evidence-based practices grounded in the cognitive model are taught within a broader conceptualization, wherein writing processes are understood to operate within a complex of external factors relating to cultural identities, social norms, linguistic resources, power relations, and familial and environmental influences. Writing, in this conceptualization, is a situated communication practice learned through socialization, not (or not merely) an abstract skill that follows a natural developmental progression within isolated individuals.
Socialization into the discourse community of academia is easier for some students than for others . Every student brings to their education particular linguistic resources, background experiences, assumptions, values, and expectations from their own native culture. The degrees of variance between native and academic culture differ widely, of course. Some students are better able to navigate the culture of academics from the start because it is already relatively familiar to them; the vocabulary and values characteristic of college academics are not so far from what they have grown up with. Thus, they enter college already understanding how to interpret what is being said, and how to discern and meet behavioral and performance expectations. For other students, the culture they come from bears little resemblance to the culture of college academics. Thus, if they have no prior exposure to the norms of behavior, communication, and meaning-making in academic culture, then they likely begin their college careers without apprehending how to conform to expectations or what will count as a successful performance. For example, according to Hassel and Giordano (2013), new college students who struggle with writing tend to lack experience writing in formal academic ways; they therefore do not know how to make appropriate choices given their audience and rhetorical purposes, and they are unfamiliar with academic conventions.
The implications of the sociocultural model of writing on pedagogy, compared with the cognitive model, are manifold. For example, the cognitive model tends to position writing as an isolated discipline comprised of a fixed compendium of process skills applicable irrespective of purposes and contexts. The classroom is the place where a teacher dispenses these skills to individual students, who learn and practice them through mental processes that function similarly from person to person. Instruction tends to deemphasize the cultural perspectives and personal differentiators students bring with them to their studies, and to leave unexamined the social contexts for learning and writing.
In contrast, in the sociocultural model, the classroom is a community wherein it is impossible to separate literacy from the external influences of a student’s environment — the cultural, social, economic, familial and other factors that affect them. These influences inherently produce inequalities among students, particularly students from non-dominant backgrounds. Pedagogy within the sociocultural model, then, seeks to recognize and account for these differences, rather than overlook them.
The instructor serves as a facilitator of students enjoined through their writing and interactions in public conversation — certainly among themselves, but also, in a broader sense, with other authors, critics, readers, and stakeholders engaged with their topics of inquiry. Writing is a social practice learned in concert with reading, speaking, listening, and thinking skills. Metacognition becomes extremely important, as students are given to understand that they are engaged in learning the conventions of a particular culture (academics), and that they themselves are situated within that culture in ways that bring to bear their personal backgrounds, experiences, knowledge, identities, and language resources.
While the cognitive model leads toward the production of writing in which the particulars of students’ identities and experiences are absent, their selves evacuated from the texts they produce, the sociocultural model brings their particular identities into play, examining and emphasizing the agency of writers as participants situated within particular communities. Their identities and backgrounds thus become potential resources that they can leverage in the service of contributing their own perspectives and ideas to ongoing, consequential conversations.
Writing is positioned as an empowering tool for pursuing one’s interests and advancing one’s objectives. Pedagogically, this puts a premium on students choosing and scoping their own projects, discovering the topics and issues they care about, and taking responsibility for their own intellectual engagement. But students succeed in leveraging their backgrounds and advancing their interests only to the degree that they communicate in ways that are valued and persuasive within the community — that is, by thinking logically, reasoning carefully, reading perceptively, discussing knowledgeably, communicating clearly — in short, by acquiring and exercising the literacy skills of an academically educated person.
The sociocultural perspective is closely compatible with principles of rhetoric: both situate the writer in a public context and call upon the skills of persuasion operative within the relevant discourse community. Rhetorical concepts and considerations — awareness of audience; definition of purpose; ethos, logos, and pathos — often are taught in the process-oriented instructional model found in secondary classrooms, but they tend there to be abstract and decontextualized. The sociocultural model, by contrast, comprehends rhetors in terms of their particular cultural identities and social situatedness; it configures purpose in terms of agency, audience in terms of discourse community, position-taking in terms of conversational participation, meaning-making and persuasiveness in terms of rhetorical context.
This model of writing facilitates one of the major goals of college-level writing instruction: to equip each student for effective participation within his or her discipline, with its particular text forms, language styles, customs of presentation, and modes of analysis. Where “rhetorical knowledge” and “knowledge of conventions” are invoked as necessary for college-level writing success, they refers to students’ awareness that they are always situated within specific discourse communities (especially academic disciplines), and that effective communication within those communities entails understanding and adhering to community expectations — such as supporting claims with evidence and practicing standards of academic integrity.
How college-ready writing is conceptualized determines how its instruction is strategized. The disconnect between secondary and post-secondary models of writing results in pedagogical differences that can leave high school graduates unprepared for the writing demands and expectations they encounter in college. The theory of writing operative within an educational community shapes not only teachers’ strategies for instruction, but also students’ understanding of what writing is and is for. The disparity between the models of writing at work in secondary versus college instruction contributes to students’ difficulties in producing the kind of academic writing required for success in college.
College-bound high schoolers need preparation for college-level writing, since writing is a key, foundational skill across disciplines. Most high school classrooms to do not equip students for college writing success, because they do not emphasize extended, research-supported composition, and because their operative model of writing does not align with the concepts and assumptions students encounter in college. Changing the approach to writing instruction in high school to better align with the college writing can help more students prepare for college success.
 cf. Association of American Colleges, 2007; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Shulock & Callan, 2010; Spellings, 2006; Perin, 2013; Venezia & Kirst, 2017.
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 cf. Association of American Colleges, 2007; Kirst & Venzenia, 2017; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Shulock & Callan, 2010; Spellings, 2006; Perin, 2013.
First, students need practice with extended, source-based composition. As shown above, an abundance of research indicates that most student writing prior to college is not rigorous enough to prepare them for the demands of college-level academic work. They are not getting enough experience at authentic academic composition and the interpretive reading, analysis, argumentation, and other higher order skills that go with it.
A primary goal of writing instruction early in college is to prepare students for writing in their disciplines later on . General principles of academic writing that are transferable across disciplines, therefore, are important for students to master in their introductory courses. This kind of writing generally requires students to compose multiple-page essays that engage with other sources . The essay types most commonly required in college are persuasive and informational; comparatively little narrative or creative writing is assigned.
First-year composition and other introductory writing courses ask students to produce research-based persuasive essays because they are an essential type of intellectual work that trains students to think and write successfully across a range of other courses — History, Political Science, Communication, Social Science, Business, Culture Studies, and so forth. Such courses themselves require research-supported essays because they are an effective way for students to demonstrate that they have learned about a content area in depth, are thoughtful about it, and can convey their knowledge and ideas clearly and effectively.
Colleges value good writing skills in part because they recognize that students who write well possess an array of high-level competencies that apply across many varieties of subject matter and types of projects. It’s easy for students to regard composing an academic essay as an isolated exercise that will have little value to them beyond a single English or writing course. Instead, they should understand it as an occasion for developing and demonstrating a constellation of highly valued skills and habits of mind that apply no matter their college major or chosen career.
To prepare them for the demands of college writing, high school classrooms should guide students through the process of composing authentic, extended academic essays. That means teaching them to:
● Generate ideas and choose their own writing topic, ideally one they personally care about; ● Identify and clearly define a researchable, debatable issue within their topic, one with a scope that can fit the time and page-length parameters of the task; ● Research their issue by locating and critically reading relevant, credible sources; ● Identify and analyze a range of perspectives within the conversation around their issue; ● Arrive at their own position based on their analysis; ● Craft an argument in support of their position, one made persuasive through evidence and reasoning; ● Anticipate and address relevant counterarguments; ● Skillfully incorporate quotes and citations into their own prose, demonstrating a rigorous respect for standards of academic integrity; ● Make substantive revisions in response to feedback and their own self-critique; ● Proofread and edit their work for spelling, grammar, and mechanics, as well as tone, style, and format; ● Produce a polished, final draft that conforms to the conventions of academic presentation.
Practice at composing an extended, research-supported academic essay provides high school students with an opportunity to learn and demonstrate the full complement of competencies research indicates are needed for college writing readiness. Without instruction and practice at this complex task prior to college, even gifted students can find themselves struggling to succeed.
There is no universal standard of college-ready writing, in part because there are such wide differences in the academic demands of postsecondary institutions, from open-access community colleges to highly selective universities (Marlink & Wahleithner, 2001; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006). Nevertheless, the large number of sources seeking to define competencies needed for college writing success agree that postsecondary students, whatever their institution, must be prepared to produce extended pieces of writing that critically engage with source materials and diverse perspectives, and that conform to academic conventions of style and presentation.
The “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing,” developed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project (2011), stresses that, to be ready for college writing, students need the knowledge and skills that go into composing an authentic, extended academic essay:
● Knowledge of writing processes: That is, knowing how to plan, draft, revise, and finalize an academic essay; ● Rhetorical knowledge: Understanding their writing task, their purposes for writing, and their audiences; knowing how to use language and reasoning in ways that are valued and persuasive within college academics; ● Critical Thinking: The ability to insightfully analyze and evaluate ideas, arguments, and perspectives from other sources, and to contribute their own well-reasoned ideas, arguments, and perspectives; ● Knowledge of conventions: Understanding that there are guidelines and expectations for how their academic work should be presented; knowing how to produce an essay that exhibits correct grammar, language mechanics, and formatting, as well as effective organization, appropriate tone and style, and careful attention to accurately representing and citing the work of others.
In addition to knowledge and skills, learning to write at the college level requires certain noncognitive behaviors. Students must, for example, be conscientious in meeting deadlines, must persist at revising and improving their drafts, and must adhere to standards of academic integrity. Appropriate social behaviors are necessary, too, including a willingness to offer thoughtful feedback to peers, and to respond constructively to critiques of their own work.
Successful student writers also exhibit metacognitive awareness. They recognize their strengths and weaknesses as learners, and know what their larger objectives are for acquiring an education. They also recognize how they as individuals are situated in relation to the people, institutions, and society around them.
Unfortunately, research on middle school and high school writing instruction shows that students get little training and practice at the kind of writing that prepares them for college. The vast majority of classroom assignments require little generation of text and no critical thinking. In their analysis of a national survey of high school writing instructional practices, Kiuhara, Graham, and Hawken (2009) report that “the writing activities [high school students] were assigned most frequently by teachers involved little analysis and interpretation,” and that “a sizable proportion of the participating teachers seldom assigned activities that clearly involved writing multiple paragraphs” (p. 151).
A study by Applebee and Langer (2011) found that “. . . the actual writing that goes on in typical classrooms across the United States remains dominated by tasks in which the teacher does all the composing, and students are left only to fill in missing information, whether copying directly from a teacher’s presentation, completing worksheets and chapter summaries, replicating highly formulaic essay structures keyed to the high-stakes tests they will be taking, or writing the particular information the teacher is seeking” (p. 28).
Studies of middle and high school classroom practices further suggest that noncognitive and metacognitive competencies are missing from pre-college writing instruction as well.Accordingly, a great number of students, including gifted students, are not equipped with the full array of abilities needed for successful writing in college. What they learn in high school is not aligned with what is expected of them afterwards.
How, then, might writing be taught in high school to better prepare students for the demands of college?
Too many students find that the kind of writing they were asked to do in high school does not resemble the writing required of them in college. Their high school classes mostly assigned short answer responses, not full-length essays. If they got a chance to write more extended pieces, most were taught to adhere to a formula, such as the five-paragraph essay, and were rewarded more for their mastery of surface features than for the quality of their thinking.
In contrast, college students are required to produce extended compositions that demonstrate critical thinking and the skilled use of sources. They’re expected to generate their own ideas; find and analyze credible information; consider a range of diverse perspectives; craft logical, evidence-based arguments; make substantive revisions in response to feedback; and turn in a polished final product that conforms to the presentational conventions of academic writing.
The skills and knowledge required to produce a successful college-level essay develop only with direct instruction and lots of practice. Unfortunately, few high schoolers get the instruction and practice they need. Even advanced high school courses do not necessarily align with the approach to writing that students encounter in college; AP English, for example, prepares students for a timed exam rather than for authentic academic composition.
Writing is the academic skill most linked to success in college, across disciplines; thus, whatever their abilities or targeted area of study, students are well served by entering college ready for the writing demands, and the approach to writing instruction, they will encounter there.
In this series of posts I propose an approach to writing instruction aimed at bridging the gap between high school and college writing. First, I draw on scholarly surveys and frameworks for success to describe college-ready writing, then identify two key changes to high school instruction that can help college-bound students succeed: an emphasis on authentic academic composition, and a shift toward a sociocultural model of writing.
 cf. Association of American Colleges, 2007; Kirst & Venezia, 2017; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Shulock & Callan, 2010; Perin, 2013; Spellings, 2006.
 cf. Condon & Kelly-Riley, 2004; Council of Writing Program Administrators, 2011; Melzer, 2009; Perin, 2013; Scherff & Piazza, 2005; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006.
ACT, Inc. released the results of its 2016 National Curriculum Survey earlier this year. The Survey goes out every three or four years to elementary, middle school, high school, and college teachers, as well as to workforce professionals. It collects information about what respondents are teaching, how they teach it, what they care about, and so forth. It serves as the basis upon which ACT builds its tests.
Because the Survey provides a look into both what pre-college students are being taught, and what they need to know to be prepared for college, it is a useful tool for examining the serious and persistent problem of college readiness—why it is that the majority of high school graduates are underprepared for college-level academic work. ACT itself reports that 72% of its test-takers fall short of at least one of its college-readiness benchmarks, which confirms the widespread underpreparedness reported by other sources. And indeed, ACT’s National Curriculum Survey reveals wide disjunctures between high school teaching and college expectations, which may have something to do with why students aren’t better prepared.
ironically, by pointing out these disjunctures, the Survey raises questions
about the validity of the ACT exam itself. The ACT is a test that straddles the
space between high school and college, claiming to be both reflective of high
school curricula and a measure of college readiness. But if ACT’s own Survey
reveals that high school curricula do not align with college expectations, how
can the ACT validly claim to measure both?
Tests are all about validity. Their value and utility depend upon them actually measuring what they purport to measure. If a test does not actually assess what it purports to, then it’s not a valid test, and any inferences made based on its results are faulty—inferences such as “this kid has been taught the skills needed for college success but hasn’t learned them very well.”
The two claims ACT, Inc. makes about the ACT test are at odds with each other, which calls into question the test’s validity. The claim that the test is “curriculum based” rests on Survey results, which ACT says serve as empirical evidence upon which it decides how to build the test. In this way, according to ACT, the test reflects what is being taught in high schools—an important claim, since testing kids on things they haven’t been taught doesn’t tell anyone much about their abilities.
ACT also, of course, claims that the test is a measure of college readiness. Through the Survey, it gathers an understanding of what college instructors expect from entering students. This understanding is reflected in ACT’s College and Career Readiness Standards, a set of “descriptions of the essential skills and knowledge students need to become ready for college and career.”
to ACT, the Standards are validated by the Survey in a process that “ensures
that our assessments always measure not only what is being taught in schools
around the country, but also what demonstrably matters most for college and
can the ACT test both what is taught in high school and what is expected in
college if those two things don’t square up, as is suggested by their National
Curriculum Survey and other research?
there’s a significant degree of overlap. Perhaps ACT can identify and test
students on those things that fall into both the learned-it-in-high-school
category and the better-know-it-for-college category. ACT says indeed there is
overlap, and that they have a way of figuring out what’s in it.
How do they do it? According to a 2015 white paper, “ACT first identifies what postsecondary faculty, including instructors of entry-level college and workforce training courses, expect of their entering students—that is, the knowledge and skills students need to be ready for entry-level postsecondary courses and jobs. ACT then compares these expectations to what is really happening in elementary, middle, and high school classrooms. ACT uses the results of these comparisons to determine the skills and knowledge that should be measured on ACT assessments and to guide its test blueprints.”
company does not explain how this process of comparison works, but it implies
that they identify a subset of knowledge and skills that fall into both camps,
then simply test kids on that.
feel confident in this process, we would need to be certain that the subset is
sufficient in size and scope to support the dual claims. That is, we would need
to know what lies outside the overlap slice, as well as what lies within. What
is being taught in high school that does not appear on the test because it is
not a college-ready expectation? Likewise, what college-ready expectations do
not appear on the test because they are not being taught in high school?
we knew those things, then we could validate the ACT by answering this
question: Is the overlap slice sufficient to support both the claim that the
test measures what is being taught in high school and the claim that it
measures college readiness?
other words, is there enough of the high school curriculum on the test to
justify calling it a valid measure of high school achievement? And are there,
at the same time, enough college expectations on the test to justify calling it
a valid measure of college readiness?
doesn’t attempt to answer these questions. As far as the ACT is concerned, if
you demonstrate proficiency on the test, then ipso facto you’ve both mastered your high school curriculum
and are ready for college, because the claims they make for the test require
that the two constructs be identical.
if you don’t do so well on the test? Is it because you haven’t learned well
enough what you’ve been taught? Or because you haven’t been taught what you’re
being tested on?
ACT simply doesn’t allow for the second possibility.
In point of fact, if high schools were teaching certain essential college-ready skills – how to revise your work in response to feedback, for example—a conventional standardized test like the ACT would never be able to detect it, because it cannot provide for test-takers opportunities to do the kind of authentic, extended, or collaborative intellectual work that will be required of them in college.
But alas, as mentioned already, plenty of research demonstrates that there is a significant difference between high school learning and college expectations, suggesting that any overlap might not be very robust. According to a six-year national study on college readiness from Stanford, “coursework between high school and college is not connected; students graduate from high school under one set of standards and, three months later, are required to meet a whole new set of standards in college.”
own research confirms this. Two things jump out from the National Curriculum
Survey results. First, as we can see from the table below, in many cases the
Survey does not ask high school teachers and college instructors the same
questions, so there is not much opportunity for determining where high school
teaching lines up, or not, with college expectations. The Survey doesn’t look
like a very good tool for comparing high school teaching to college
expectations in Writing, for example.
second thing is, where the Survey does provide opportunities for comparing high
school with college, it finds that high school teaching does not align with
college expectations. The Survey report points out, for example, that high
school Writing teachers and college instructors are not emphasizing the same
skills. Further, high school math teachers do not agree with college math
instructors about what skills are important for success in STEM courses. Less
than half of high school teachers believe that the Common Core math standards
(which ACT stresses are in line with its own College Readiness Standards) match
college instructors’ expectations for college readiness.
other words, ACT’s own Survey shows that, to a significant extent, the
knowledge and skills high school teachers are teaching are not the knowledge
and skills college instructors are expecting of entering students.
Hence the college-readiness gap.
if those two bodies of knowledge and skills aren’t the same, how can ACT
support the claim that its test measures both what students actually learn and
what ACT says they should learn
for college readiness? The test doesn’t distinguish a “high-school-learning”
part from a “college-requirements” part. As far as the test is concerned, it’s
all the same.
In fact, ACT can’t really support both claims at the same time. But they make them anyway because they want to sell the test to two distinct markets. They want to sell it to students who are trying to get into college, so they call it a college-readiness test. And they want to sell it to states and districts for accountability purposes. These entities want to know whether their students are learning what they’re being taught; thus ACT calls the test curriculum-based.
we might wonder, don’t standards take care of all this? Standards, after all, both reflect the skills needed for
college readiness and guide high school curriculum, right? Therefore, if the
test aligns with the standards,
then it’s both curriculum-based and a college-readiness indicator, because those are the same thing.
Most states have adopted the Common Core State Standards. Those that haven’t have concocted their own state standards, which are pretty much in line with the CCSS. In addition, ACT has its own College and Career Readiness Standards, which, it says, line up with both the CCSS and any non-CCSS state standards you care to throw at it. (As ACT says, “If a state’s standards represent the knowledge and skills that prepare students for college and career, then ACT Aspire and the ACT measure that knowledge and those skills”—a statement that manages to be both a non sequitur and a tautology.)
however, ACT’s own research shows that neither high school teachers nor college
instructors are much convinced that the CCSS reflect college-level expectations
anyway. Asked by the Survey, “To what extent do you feel that the Common Core
State Standards are aligned with college instructors’ expectations regarding
college readiness,” the majority of both high school and college teachers
responded little or slightly, rather than a great deal or completely.
other words, according to its own data, ACT shouldn’t really get away with
equating standards-based “curriculum achievement” with “college readiness.”
So what’s the cost of the ACT’s tricky claim-game? The cost is that we get farther away from understanding and addressing the college-readiness gap, so long as everyone believes that the ACT is really measuring what it says it does.
high school curricula lack significant overlap with the skills and knowledge
ACT identifies as necessary for college-readiness, the test measures not what
students have learned but what they haven’t been taught. This, then, contrary
to ACT’s claims, is not an indicator of student readiness or achievement, but a
measure of the distance between high school teaching and college expectations
(or at least those ACT identifies and can test for).
But this is not how the interpretation of test results falls out for either student or state customers. Rather, the inescapable inference for both is that the majority of students have been taught what they need to know but simply haven’t learned it well enough—student’s fault, or teacher’s fault, but not the test’s fault for leading everyone to a lousy inference.
faulty inference that issues from the ACT doesn’t help matters where students’
future opportunities are at stake; prospective colleges have no way of knowing
that a kid was tested on things she was never actually taught. And it doesn’t
help where states are trying to figure out how to improve their education
systems. Rather, it makes matters worse by misdirecting both states and
students away from the problem of how better to connect high school learning to
necessary college skills, and toward the problem of how to get kids to score
better on the test.
do indeed want an education system in which high school curricula are focused
securely on the skills and knowledge we confidently know are needed for success
upon entry into college. Demonstrably, that’s not what we have now, so we
don’t need a test that falsely suggests otherwise.
The standards-based education reform movement, kicked off by A Nation At Risk in 1983, has been around long enough now to start showing results, if it’s going to. Unfortunately, there is not much evidence that this path is leading anywhere good. The latest Nation’s Report Card, based on National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) testing, shows that twelfth graders in 2015 weren’t any more ready for college than were twelfth-graders in 2012. Likewise, students in 2012 didn’t make progress over the kids tested in 2007, or 2003, or 1998.
Generally, the NAEP assessments show that over an extended period only about a quarter of high school students have graduated ready for college-level academics. For low-income and minority groups, the numbers are even worse, and aren’t budging. (For a more extended discussion of the College Readiness Gap, click here.)
given all the efforts made in recent years toward defining and teaching the
skills and knowledge needed for college success, are we still not seeing rising
numbers of high school graduates ready for college?
Because standards, important as they may be, are not enough. It is increasingly evident that learning entails much more than the acquisition of cognitive skills by themselves. For example, researchers now emphasize students’ dispositions and behaviors—e.g. their “grit”—as necessary components of academic success. Education reformer Diane Ravitch identifies poverty and race-based inequalities as the unaddressed culprits in our failure to make progress in the standards-based education era.
college readiness is concerned, we must consider that most students, when they
first enter a college classroom, are encountering what amounts to a new and
strange culture, with its own embedded behavioral expectations, its own
language, its own values and assumptions. Many entering students, regardless of
the standards-based cognitive skills they may have acquired in high school, are
essentially strangers in a strange land, largely unacquainted with the world
they’ve entered into. They don’t speak the language, they’re unfamiliar with
the underlying values that structure rules for meaning-making, they don’t quite
know how to successfully make use of the skills and knowledge they do bring with them from high school.
They are not prepared for the culture of college academics.
to a foreign country, most high schoolers might be able to order a meal and buy
a bus ticket from the start, but they would not find themselves truly
understanding and thriving within their new habitat until they became oriented
to how the natives think, what motivates them, their belief structures, why
they behave as they do. The same is true of students entering the foreign world
of postsecondary academics.
of course, where higher education is concerned, the goal ultimately is to
integrate these new denizens into the culture to such a degree that they become
wholly familiar, conversant, and accepted members. That’s what being educated
norms of college academic culture are unfamiliar to most matriculating
students, but especially those who are among the first in their families to go
to college. For the most part, how academic culture operates goes unexplained,
yet understanding and negotiating it is critical to every student’s college
To do well in a college classroom, students must acquire a high-level map of the governing values, shared assumptions, accepted and expected ways of communicating and thinking and behaving—all the elements that comprise the “webs of significance” constitutive of any culture.
cultural elements endemic to the intellectual enterprise of college academics
are only thoroughly acquired over time, through experience and exposure,
through a kind of osmosis, as students absorb the language and concepts
employed by their instructors, begin to read and respond to an array of
academic texts, participate in collaborative academic work, sink deeper into
their major field of study, write papers, do research, and gradually begin to
grasp the kinds of performances that are considered successful.
a fundamental level, acquiring a college education entails enculturation into the practices and discourses that structure meaning-making
in higher academics.
student brings to school particular linguistic resources, background
experiences, assumptions, values, and expectations from their own native
culture. The degrees of variance between native and academic culture differ
widely, however. Some students are better able to function within academic
culture from the start because it is already relatively familiar to them. The
vocabulary and values characteristic of college academics are not so far from
what they’ve grown up with. They enter college already knowing pretty much how
things work, how to interpret what’s being said, how to discern and meet the
behavioral and performance expectations.
For other students, the culture they come from bears little resemblance to the one they’re entering, and it takes a lot more than mastery of basic cognitive skills to be successful.
To be clear, we’re not talking here strictly about immigrants from distant lands, who may be struggling with English or American cultural norms more broadly. Nor are we talking about students grappling with the unfamiliarity of college life per se—class schedules, dorms, social activities, and so forth.
Rather, we’re talking about anyone for whom the norms of the intellectual culture of college are unfamiliar—anyone for whom, for example, the primacy and procedures of academic, evidence-centered argumentation are not already woven into the fabric of how meaning gets made in their world. There are many ethnicity- and income-defined subgroups within American culture that fall into this category.
disjunctures between native and academic cultural norms, absent some targeted
intervention, are how socio-economic disadvantages transmute into educational
disadvantages. All the more reason, then, for all students, regardless of
income or background, to begin the process of enculturation as they prepare for
college, rather than after they get there.
There is no exhaustive taxonomy of academic cultural norms, but we’ve identified eight key concepts—interdependent and mutually reinforcing—that every student would do well to grasp prior to entering the intellectual culture of academia.
Our FREE .pdf—A High Schooler’s Guide to the Culture of College Academics: 8 Key Concepts—defining and exploring them is available here. For a white paper surveying the literature and laying out a theoretical basis for this guide visit here.
These concepts can be difficult to get across, but they are graspable by high schoolers and, we believe, are in keeping with the level of rigor needed in high school instruction if it is to drive college success.
Part of what’s so hard about the transition to college is precisely the need to learn the operative norms of the intellectual culture when they are not at all self-evident, and not familiar to students from their previous school experience or upbringing. It makes sense, then, to begin providing some enculturation into the norms of college-level academics as part of college prep instruction in high school.