Students who fall through the cracks early in their education have a difficult time catching up in college, says education Professor Bruce S. Cooper in the first ever United States study to track academic performance from kindergarten through college. Cooper’s study analyzed the performance of nearly 30,000 students who graduated from the New York City public schools and attended the City University of New York (CUNY) by linking test data from both school systems. The study results confirm what many educators long have suspected but have never quantified: that, after years of “social promotion” — in which children advance a grade level each year without mastering the skills typically needed to do so — students first discover their academic weaknesses in college.
At that point, they must take remedial education courses to catch up with their peers, many times exhausting their financial aid to do so. The study was commissioned by the Mayor’s Advisory Task Force on the City University of New York, and was co-authored by Cooper, professor in the administration, policy and urban education division of Fordham’s Graduate School of Education, and Miriam Cilo, Ed.D., a task-force member. The group was charged with investigating the impact of open admissions and remedial education policies at CUNY, a publicly-funded system of colleges and universities that serves more than 200,000 urban and inner-city students.
Cooper and Cilo’s study found that of the students who graduated from New York City high schools in June 1997 and entered bachelor’s degree programs at CUNY that fall, 65 percent failed one or more of CUNY’s Freshman Skills Assessment Tests, which measure proficiency in reading, writing, math and English. The results for students who enrolled in associate’s degree programs were more stark: 87 percent failed one or more of CUNY’s proficiency exams. The students who failed the entrance exams required some form of remediation. Low scores on eighth-grade math and reading tests, and on high school New York State Regents exams, should have provided early clues to teachers that this group of students needed help, Cooper said.
As eighth-graders, for example, the students scored an average of 49 points out of 99 on the Degrees of Reading Power test and 46 out of 99 on the California Achievement Test in Math, both standardized tests given nationwide. Their results fell below a passing score of 50 and, on average, lagged more than 25 points behind those of students who ultimately did not require remedial classes at CUNY. Though the findings are not surprising, education experts say they give policy-makers the grist needed to make significant changes in the American educational system. “American education policy so often splits between higher education and lower education, and there’s very little precise information about the link between them,” said Michael W. Kirst, a higher education expert and professor at Stanford University.
“[Cooper’s] study leads to an understanding about this link, what to do about it and how to make policy decisions.” Among Cooper and Cilo’s recommendations for improvement was to reconceptualize education as “K-16” to lessen the division between elementary, secondary and higher education. A K-16 system would allow for greater collaboration between higher and lower education, the development of standards and curricula across grades and institutions, and enriched high school offerings, Cooper said. It also would place more emphasis on fixing academic problems before students reach college, he said.