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Montgomery Co. Touts 'Seven Keys to College Readiness' as an Academic Pathway

By Daniel de Vise
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 18, 2009

In a region where college preparation often begins at birth, some glossy new public school brochures offer a tantalizing formula for parents who crave assurance that their children are on track: a seven-step pathway to higher education that starts as early as kindergarten.

Montgomery County educators are blitzing parents and students with information on what they call "Seven Keys to College Readiness." The initiative, also promoted on the Web (http://www.mcps7keys.org), spells out in detail the courses and tests that officials say point toward academic prosperity.

Measuring students early and often against lofty goals is part of school culture in the Washington area. School systems in Fairfax, Prince William and Calvert counties, among others, set annual targets in such areas as college entrance testing and accelerated math.

With his campaign, Montgomery County School Superintendent Jerry D. Weast goes a step further, telling parents how their children should score on each test, and which courses they should take -- and when -- if they wish to earn a college degree.

"What our job is, is to connect the dots," Weast said April 28 at Northwood High School in Silver Spring as the campaign was launched. "We're trying to answer the parents' question: 'What's the pathway?' "

Some of the goals are obvious. Savvy parents know that a college-bound student should score at least 1650 out of a possible 2400 points on the SAT, and pass at least one Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate test. Those are two of the seven goals. A third widely accepted goal is for students to take Algebra I, traditionally a high school course, in middle school.

But Weast's campaign also suggests that a child can be deemed college-bound from a first-grade reading score or a fifth-grade math course. Weast says he wants 80 percent of the county's 140,000 students on the college-ready path by 2014. It's a typically bold, splashy -- and potentially risky -- strategy for a superintendent who views the "keys" as the culmination of nearly 10 years at the helm of Maryland's largest school system.

Some parents say the campaign is costly and unnecessary. (School officials say the brochure cost $18,895, with half the sum covered by business partners.)

"I glanced at it, felt that it didn't really apply to my family, and moved on," said Julie Garcia, who has two children at Burning Tree Elementary in Bethesda, one of the region's top-performing schools.

Weast said he was more concerned about schools such as Col. E. Brooke Lee Middle School in Silver Spring, where more than half of families qualify for meal subsidies.

"The goals may be obvious to some, but I can guarantee that there are quite a few parents that weren't clear on the [college] pathways," said Ricky Ford, father of two students at Lee.

Weast released the seven goals with research that attempts to link them to one another, and to the ultimate goal of college graduation.

School system analysts found that a student who met one goal probably would meet the next goal, and so on. There are well-established links between the final goals -- scoring well on college entrance tests and AP or IB exams -- and success in college.

Roughly two-thirds of Montgomery kindergartners already meet the first goal: advanced performance on a school-system reading assessment in the primary grades. Just under half of all students meet the second, advanced performance on the Maryland School Assessment in reading in grades 3 to 8. About half of students take advanced math in grade 5, the third goal. For goals four through seven:

-- Fifty-seven percent attain a C or better in Algebra I by eighth grade;

-- Forty-nine percent successfully complete Algebra II by 11th grade;

-- Forty-six percent pass at least one AP test in high school; and

-- Forty-nine percent score 1650 on the SAT or 24 of a possible 36 points on the ACT.

To buttress their argument for college-readiness benchmarks, Montgomery officials point to a school system analysis that tracked the Class of 2001. It found that about half of the county's graduates complete college, compared with 27 percent nationally. It found a much higher college completion rate -- 77 percent -- among students who attained the county's target score on the SAT or ACT.

In public education, college readiness is often touted but seldom defined. In an influential report two years ago, University of Oregon education professor David Conley said the term comprises an assortment of high-order cognitive skills, such as the ability to write a properly structured research paper and conduct a laboratory experiment using the scientific method.

Conley predicted that the Montgomery effort will help prepare children for college, regardless of whether each "key" is well-chosen.

"The students get the message from every direction that it's important to be thinking of their education beyond high school," he said.

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