All D.C. students would pursue higher education under council chief’s proposal

(Jahi Chikwendiu/WASHINGTON POST) - Lashaunta Davis, 17, applauds at the graduation of Anacostia High School in June 2010. A bill pitched by D.C. Council chairman Kwame Brown add graduation requirments: Taking a college prep test and applying to a school.

The D.C. Council will consider mandating that all city high school students complete college admission testing and seek out higher education, Chairman Kwame R. Brown announced Tuesday.

The legislation, which Brown (D) plans to introduce Wednesday, is a dramatic and provocative step that was praised for being well-intentioned but faulted as unrealistic.

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Under the bill, all 75,000 students in D.C. public schools, including charters, would have to take the SAT or ACT college entrance exam to graduate from high school.

Every student would also be required to complete “at least one” application for admission to college or vocational or trade school — even if the student does not intend to continue schooling beyond 12th grade.

If approved, according to several education advocates, the District would have among the most aggressive requirements in the nation for prodding students to pursue college. But Brown’s bill makes no exceptions for students who want to join the military or seek a career that does not require a degree.

“I’m not saying everyone should go to college, but, my goodness, we have to get more young folks prepared to go to college if they want to go college,” Brown said. “A lot of them don’t even know how to prepare to apply to go to college. They have never seen a college application. We have to set high expectations.”

Requiring students to take college entrance exams is not a new idea — at least 11 states do so, according to the Education Commission of the States.

Experts say that taking such tests — and teaching teens and parents how to interpret the results — can be a powerful way to help more students prepare for higher education.

“There’s a lot of evidence that many families, particularly low-income families, don’t know what’s involved in going to college and being ready to go to college,” said Brookings Institution education scholar Grover “Russ” Whitehurst. “Making that information available while there’s still time to act has been shown to be important.”

But Whitehurst said requiring students to apply to a postsecondary institution could make a mockery of the process. “You don’t want people to go through a sham process of application, nor do you want to subject colleges and universities to receiving such applications,” Whitehurst said. “It takes motivation to attend college and succeed, and you can’t force it.”

High schools should be concerned about preparing students for college, not preparing them for a perfunctory application process, said Barmak Nassirian, associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

“I recognize that this is a good-faith effort to move forward, but I think it would be better to focus on what is actually under control of the high school,” he said. “What good does it do for them to require students to ritualistically apply to college?”

Brown counters that D.C. students need an extra push to convince them that a college education is attainable. He notes that the city’s public schools have an on-time graduation rate of 43 percent, according to some calculations, and that more than half of its students qualify for free or reduced-price school meals.

Under the bill, which Brown said will be one of his priorities this year, all city schools will be required to offer seminars on how to apply for postsecondary institutions.

“We know the impact that even one workshop can make on a parent or student,” said Argelia Rodriguez, president of the District of Columbia College Access Program, a nonprofit organization that provides college and financial aid counselors in all of the city’s public and public charter high schools. (Washington Post Co. Chairman and Chief Executive Donald E. Graham sits on the organization’s board of directors.)

The Office of the State Superintendent of Education estimates that 51 percent of the District’s 2010 graduates enrolled in a degree-granting institution within a year of receiving a diploma from a public high school.

According to the College Board, fewer than half of the students in the class of 2011 took the SAT.

Since being elected to the council in 2004, Brown has hosted annual college tours in which he has accompanied dozens of students on visits to universities. On those tours, Brown said, he discovered that many D.C. youths do not realize that financial aid is available and that college is a realistic option for many of them.

For example, under the congressionally authorized D.C. Tuition Assistance Grant Program, city students are eligible for up to $10,000 a year in tuition assistance to attend public universities throughout the country.

“When you are dealing with these young folks, they want to better themselves, they want to go to college,” Brown said.

Brown said that a District-wide standard for college preparation evens out opportunities across a system that includes both poor-performing inner city schools and highly sought-out charter and specialized public schools.

Students at the high-performing public School Without Walls in Northwest Washington, for example, are required to fill out at least three college applications and are strongly encouraged to take the SAT, said Principal Richard Trogisch.

Many of the city’s charter schools also provide intensive college counseling and test-preparation courses.

Under a new evaluation system, charters are judged according to students’ SAT performance and college acceptance rate, and conversations about higher education often begin early.

Three-year-olds beginning school at KIPP DC campuses last fall began talking right away about the year they would graduate from high school and enter college: 2026.

 
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