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Rethinking the Performance Gap

How should colleges and universities address disparities in students’ academic preparation?

January 6, 2022
 
 

Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce asks a provocative question: What would it mean if those in the bottom 40 percent of the income distribution held the same proportion of associate’s and bachelor’s degrees as the upper 60 percent?

The answer:

  • We’d increase degree attainment for the bottom 40 percent by 29 percentage points—from 28 percent to 57 percent, with the biggest gains experienced by Black and Hispanic students.
  • The financial benefit—from higher earnings and tax benefits—would total nearly $1 trillion a year.

Incredible.

Equalizing educational attainment rates shouldn’t be a mission impossible. It’s not a radical or utopian goal.

So why does this seem to be beyond our ability?

I, like you, know the standard answers. Money—both higher education’s financial and opportunity costs—and competing demands on students’ time.

Then there’s the rationalization that seems to trump all others: the widespread belief that all too many students from low-income backgrounds are academically underprepared for the rigors of a college education. After all, we know all too well many of these students had unequal access to high-quality preschools or to highly experienced K-12 teachers. Many were concentrated in high-poverty K-12 schools that failed to offer advanced coursework.

The rationalization for disparities in college graduation rates takes various forms: that too many students from low-income backgrounds aren’t college-ready. That many suffer from achievement gaps.

Then there are repeated reports that a substantial proportion of lower-income students score well below grade level on standardized reading and math tests, a situation, we are told, that has significantly worsened during the pandemic. According to one widely used assessment, 49 percent of third graders in low-income areas are two or more grade levels behind in reading and math. The figure is similar for eighth graders.

The achievement gap—or what is now often termed the “performance gap” or the “opportunity gap,” to reflect disparities in access to tutoring, after-school programs, parental support and personalized feedback—has become a common way to justify class, racial and ethnic disparities in degree attainment.

According to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress, only a little more than a third of 12th graders read proficiently, and fewer than a quarter are proficient in math.

Disparities in standardized test scores have prompted dramatic responses on the K-12 level. To take one example: the San Diego Unified School District decided to ditch regular standardized testing in math, arguing that these tests present a limited picture of students’ knowledge and capabilities.

Certainly, standardized multiple-choice tests (or “forced choice” tests, in the eyes of their critics), have flaws. With their emphasis on speed, these high-pressure tests tell us little about students’ problem-solving process. Students can game the results through educated guessing without actually understanding underlying concepts or mathematical thinking or having mastered requisite procedural skills.

San Diego Unified’s critics see another motive at work. Since standardized tests are the only mechanism we currently have to compare academic performance across district lines and demographic categories, eliminating such tests is a way to blind us to a troubling reality: that over half of San Diego Unified’s students fail to meet state standards.

Nor do critics find the school district’s explanations for jettisoning standardized tests persuasive:

  • That “there wasn’t really a difference in what students were capable of doing. It was a difference in who had access to different support systems.”
  • That a “focus on computation also doesn’t help students when they graduate high school and enroll in college or apply for jobs, because colleges and employers want students who are critical thinkers who can apply their math knowledge, rather than be human calculator.”

But before dismissing these arguments out of hand, we at the college level need to recognize that with proper support and appropriate interventions, a much higher share of students are fully capable of earning a college degree.

What, then, should colleges do to advance academic equity and reduce performance gaps and disparities in graduation rates? Here are seven strategies that have been shown to work.

1. Create a more seamless alignment between high school and college.

We need to do a much better job of aligning high school and college expectations. Dual-degree/early-college courses in high school have shown particular promise. These courses not only motivate and engage students better than traditional high school classes but jump-start their progress toward a postsecondary credential.

2. Institute tutoring, after-school and summer bridge programs.

Another way to connect high schools and colleges is through expanded outreach initiatives. Examples include weekend academies, like the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History’s Saturday academies for middle and high school students, which enhance their reading, reasoning and writing skills through the examination and evaluation of primary source documents; engage students through class discussion, essay projects and artistic expression; and strengthen their knowledge of the social sciences and humanities. Similarly, the Teagle Foundation’s Knowledge for Freedom Program gives underserved high school students the opportunity to study enduring works of literature and philosophy that raise deep questions about leading lives of purpose and civic responsibility.

3. Integrate “College 101” training into the new student experience.

Many students benefit substantially from an introduction to college programs and study skills, time management and mind-set training. These can take place in a new student orientation, within a required first-year class or in a learning community. The most successful programs not only familiarize students with degree requirements, college’s distinctive vocabulary, support services and extracurricular opportunities, but foster a sense of belonging and build social connections.

4. Provide every new student with a degree plan and access to an adviser.

It is particularly easy for first-generation students to fall off track. Right from the start, all new students, whether these are entering freshmen or transfer students, benefit from receiving a degree plan that not only spells out a sequence of recommended and required courses but that links those courses to possible future careers. Students also need a personal point of contact who can answer questions and provide one-stop, comprehensive guidance.

5. Replace remedial courses with corequisite remediation.

Under the corequisite model, undergraduates enroll immediately in credit-bearing gateway courses while receiving the extra support they need to succeed. This “just-in-time” approach helps students study particular concepts and practice essential skills as they arise in a particular course.

Since the University System of Georgia implemented corequisite remediation, it has more than tripled the percentage of students who have successfully completed gateway math courses and increased success in gateway English courses by 50 percent.

Keys to the success of corequisite remediation are implementing comprehensive learning supports, including tutoring, study groups, learning centers and breakout sessions, and building supplemental instruction into high-DFW courses (so that commuting students can readily take advantage of such assistance).

6. Implement a system to monitor student learning and trigger and target interventions as needed.

A data-driven system of early alerts, behavioral nudges and proactive interventions benefits all students, but especially those who are from low-income backgrounds or who are the first in their family to attend college. It is not enough, however, to simply send a text message to a student who is struggling academically. More personalized outreach, especially on the part of a faculty member, tends to be much more effective.

7. Rethink curricular pathways, course design and pedagogy to maximize student success.

The kinds of curricular, course design and pedagogical innovations that advance academic success aren’t a mystery. These include:

  • Structured degree pathways: Intentionally designed, coherent, carefully sequenced, synergistic courses that build on one another and that align with particular career outcomes.
  • Learning communities and interest groups: A cohort program for students that offers shared common intellectual and co-curricular experiences, or that is organized around a common theme, a career goal or a series of big questions, and that includes a dedicated faculty member and dedicated advising.
  • Math pathways: Math courses aligned with student goals and particular programs of study, such as a quantitative reasoning, a data science and a calculus path.
  • High-impact practices: In addition to participation in learning communities, other examples of educationally purposeful and impactful practices include opportunities to take part in mentored research, supervised internships, service and community-based learning, project-based learning and study abroad.
  • Evidence-based pedagogy: An approach to teaching that emphasizes active inquiry and the active processing of information, and that involves frequent interaction with a faculty member and with peers; regular, timely, substantive feedback; real-world relevance and application of knowledge and skills; and public demonstrations of competence.

It’s a cliché, but true nonetheless: students don’t start at the same place. But that doesn’t mean we can’t get them to similar levels of attainment.

The problem isn’t a shortage of good ideas. It’s a failure to implement evidence-based solutions.

Calls for equity, far too often, are little more than examples of virtue signaling and moral grandstanding. But if you genuinely care about educational equity, you should become an advocate for the kinds of institutional innovations that can maximize every student’s educational outcome.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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