My "sheepskin" bears a date more ancient than I care to mention. I have been working, more or less successfully, in an intellectually demanding profession for nearly a quarter of a century. I am reasonably well read, reasonably well traveled, reasonably well versed. But, according to the people who should know, I'm not ready for college--not even as a prospective freshman. And stop clucking your tongue; the chances are you aren't either.
I've just been looking at a marvelous slice of pie in the sky called "Academic Preparation for College: What Students Need to Know and Be Able to Do." According to this newest publication of the people at the College Board, college-bound students ought to possess the "basic academic competencies."
And what are these basics? They include reading comprehension and writing ability and math, of course. But they also include basic competency in a foreign language; the ability to use computers for self- instruction and problem-solving, as well as to understand the social, economic and ethical implications of computers; "intensive preparation" in at least one of the arts, including some knowledge of the history and theory of the art and the ability to perform in it. In addition, entering freshmen should be able to handle not just arithmetic, algebra and plane and solid geometry, but also statistics and probability.
Some of us would be thrilled if most college graduates were as well prepared as the College Board people say entering freshmen ought to be. What makes these up-the-basics proposals particularly interesting is that they come while we are still agonizing over the report of the presidential commission that tells us our high school students are not learning the relatively simple stuff that their parents learned.
I've just seen a report from the National Assessment of Education that serves to illustrate the size of the gap between what our children are learning and what the College Board says they ought to know before starting college. Two-thirds of the nation's 17-year-olds (and 60 percent of the 13-year-olds) can solve such problems as 7/8 x 3/2. But take the ostensibly similar problem: George had 3/4 of a pie. He ate 3/5 of that. How much pie did he eat? Only 29 percent of the 17-year-olds (and 17 percent of the 13-year-olds) can come up with the right answer. "These results," says the National Assessment, "suggest that students can mechanically compute the product of two fractions, but they may have little understanding of the relationship between fraction multiplication and physical situations that embody that operation."
Imagine what the results might have been if these same youngsters had been asked to solve a problem my father remembers from his 6th-grade arithmetic class in rural Mississippi: "A man, on being asked the time of day, replied that two-thirds of the time past noon was equal to one-sixth of the time before midnight. What time was it?"
And the College Board wants to turn these 17-year-olds into computer-competent, statistics-handling, foreign-language-speaking dancers, artists and actors!
The problem is not with the College Board's laudable goals. I, too, would like to see high school seniors with the sort of knowledge and skills the board says they ought to possess. But before we insist that our high school graduates be smarter than the great bulk of literate, professionally competent college graduates --smarter than most of their teachers--shouldn't we focus our attention on being sure that they know how to read and do sums?