Iowa's high school grads not always ready for next step

Despite highest graduation rate in nation, many students unprepared for college, workforce

Associate professor Alan Lobell reviews the materials that will be covered in an upcoming test during a pre-algebra clas
Associate professor Alan Lobell reviews the materials that will be covered in an upcoming test during a pre-algebra class in Cedar Hall at Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids on Thursday, February 7, 2013. (Cliff Jette/The Gazette)

A higher percentage of Iowa high-school students received diplomas in 2010-11, the first year all states used the same four-year measurement, than graduates in any other state in the nation.

But there’s a problem.

“I think that the universal high school diploma is a wonderful thing for students to achieve and get, but we clearly have a disconnect between the requirements of a traditional high school diploma and the demands of college and the workforce today,” said Jason Glass, director of the Iowa Department of Education.

Glass isn’t complaining about the fact that Iowa graduated 88.3 percent of its high-school students in four years. He’s acknowledging a fact in public education: Just because a student has a high school diploma does not mean he or she is ready to enter higher education or the workforce.

“A diploma itself means that you’ve reached the minimum standards the school has set out,” said Terry Schneekloth, a math teacher at Jefferson High School in Cedar Rapids.

It’s just that those minimum standards may not be enough for next-level success.

Ready or not

Iowa’s colleges and universities offer an array of developmental courses, classes designed to reach learners who are not yet at grade level, but the need varies between institutions. In fall 2012, the University of Iowa offered only two remedial courses, basic algebra and basic geometry. Only 71 of the 4,470, or 1.59 percent, of new freshmen on campus enrolled in these two classes.

In contrast, 33.8 percent of the fall 2012 immediate enrollees — students who graduated high school in spring 2012 — to Iowa’s 15 community colleges took at least one developmental course, with the largest portion of the classes focusing on math. In 2012, immediate fall enrollees to community colleges represented 26.3 percent of Iowa’s spring 2012 high school graduates.

“Is it possible to get through the classes and get a passing grade and not really know how to do some of the math? That is a possibility whether they’ve worked the system a little bit,” Schneekloth said, noting that it’s a rare occurrence at Jefferson.

For Chuck Hinz, dean of learning services at Kirkwood Community College, it’s unfair to look at that data and assume Iowa’s high schools haven’t adequately prepared their students.

“I think the conclusion one can draw is the student completed the high school curriculum, achieved enough credits to pass the courses and sometimes that doesn’t always go hand-in-hand with having a real high-functioning skill level in those particular subjects,” he said. “The primary purpose of the high school is not to prepare every student to go to college.”

According to ACT data, only 30 percent of Iowa’s class of 2012 graduates who took the college-entrance exam met or exceeded college readiness benchmark scores in the test’s four subject areas: math, science, reading and English.

“We have a lot of students graduating from high school without the skills they need to succeed at the next level,” said Ed Colby, ACT’s director of public relations. “Those skills are very comparable to the skills students would need to succeed in workforce training programs as well.”

Glass called data from ACT the best means the state has to gauge college and career readiness, but even that metric only includes students who take the exam, many of whom are college-bound. For the class of 2012, 63 percent of students took the exam.

For the other 37 percent of Iowa’s high school pupils, well, “We don’t know if they’re college-ready or not,” Glass said. “Iowa has a long way to go in defining what (college- and career-ready) means and lining up the education system with those skills.”

He also cited the ACT National Curriculum Survey, which aims to measure “the gap between postsecondary expectations and high school practice,” as a framework to view college preparedness. The most recent survey, released in 2009, demonstrates what Glass calls “a huge gap.” While 71 percent of America’s high school teachers felt that their state’s graduation requirements prepared students well or very well for college, that number plummets to 20 percent for postsecondary instructors.

A solution?

Earlier this year, Gov. Terry Branstad proposed education reform that aims to close the chasm the ACT National Curriculum Survey spotlights. The initiative, Iowa Promise Diploma Seals, would include optional distinction for graduates who exhibit college or career readiness. In order to earn the distinction, students would have to complete a readiness assessment and a senior portfolio. A group of business and education leaders would then define the standards for attainment.

“The purpose of it really is to establish a high bar for students to shoot for and compel our education system to put pathways in front of students for college and career readiness,” Glass said. “We’re not changing or limiting the traditional high school diploma at all. We’re building on top of that ... It is about adding and raising and aspiring students to higher levels.”

If adopted, the Iowa Diploma Promise Seals reform is expected to cost $10 million annually and be available beginning with the class of 2015, with full implementation scheduled for July 1, 2017, according to a department of education legislative brief. Another goal of the reform is to award automatic college entrance or hiring preference to students whose diplomas bear the seals. 

Give us feedback

We value your trust and work hard to provide fair, accurate coverage. If you have found an error or omission in our reporting, tell us here.

Or if you have a story idea we should look into? Tell us here.