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Preparing students for college, jobs, success 

 

Southern Illinoisan
February 20, 2013
By Sheila Simon

High school graduations are worth celebrating. They mark a big transition in the lives of young adults. But they ought to mean even more. They ought to mean that the graduate is ready for college or a career.

In a report my office issued last year, we found that almost half of recent Illinois high school graduates required remedial courses upon enrolling in a community college. These courses require time and money to complete, yet offer no credits toward a degree. Too often, students never get beyond those remedial courses and end up dropping out of college.

Why is the remediation rate so high? A large part of the reason is that we have not set high enough standards for what our children need to learn in Kindergarten through high school. When they arrive in postsecondary programs, they simply aren’t equipped with the knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

The same is true for careers. In Illinois, good jobs continue to go unfilled even while we grapple with tough economic times. This is due largely to the mismatch between the skills and knowledge we provide our students and what employers in a modern economy need workers to know.

The good news is that in Illinois we have a plan to help get our kids ready for life in the real world.

We already took an important first step by becoming one of the 45 states to adopt the Common Core State Standards and began introducing them to classrooms this year. These national K-12 learning standards for math and English -with additional subjects to be added -are aligned with modern expectations of college educators and employers.

The new standards provide fewer, clearer and higher benchmarks for academic progress. They focus on deeper knowledge required at each grade level. And they give teachers the opportunity to explore topics more extensively and ensure students can apply what they’ve learned.

As we roll out the new standards and lesson plans, we need to understand how our students will perform in a climate of higher expectations.

We’ve known for a while that many grade school students who were classified as “meeting standards” on the Illinois Standards Achievement (ISAT) test went on to perform poorly on the Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE) and the ACT in high school. It’s not that high schoolers were failing to learn; it’s that expectations were too low at the earlier grades.

This is why the State Board of Education decided to elevate the required scores to meet or exceed standards on the ISAT this school year. The move aligns expectations from grade school to high school and gives us an earlier and more accurate picture of how students will perform when the higher standards are fully implemented. We expect more students will fall short.

Identifying those students who are falling off track is critical, as it will provide parents and educators with the opportunity to give additional support early on. New tests coming in 2014 will give a picture of student learning at multiple points in time.

Research shows that when expectations are raised, students rise to meet them. Adapting to higher standards and raising expectations may prove challenging, but they are the steps we must take so that our kids are successful in high schools and prepared for colleges and careers. Readiness is worth a celebration.