Dishonesty in the School System: a Commentary on Chester Finn’s “The Fog of “College Readiness”” – part 5

studentAfter a hiatus of a few weeks, we are resuming this series that looks at the systemic dishonesty in the public school system concerning students’ readiness for college level work.

While most high-school graduates do, in fact, head for some sort of college, the colleges do not view millions of these matriculants as qualified for credit-bearing courses in core subjects such as English, math, and science. These students are admitted because the majority of U.S. two- and four-year colleges are open-admission institutions that, whether because it’s their statutory mandate, their sense of mission, or their financial imperative, accept pretty much all who apply. And thanks to widespread availability of financial aid — federal grants and especially loans being by far the largest source — and costs that are still relatively manageable on most campuses due to state subsidies, local taxpayers, and generous donors, few students are deterred by net-price considerations. (Price certainly affects which colleges they choose, however, and whether they enroll full or part time.)

Enrolling in an affordable college is not, however, the same as registering for college-level courses, the kind that actually accumulate credits toward those remunerative degrees. Instead, vast numbers of arriving students are routed into remedial classes — more often now called “developmental” — to gain the skills and knowledge (and perhaps the study habits) that they didn’t bring from high school. – Chester Finn, Jr.

Most high school graduates end up in some kind of college. Of the 1,762 graduates in the 2015 class (the year the graduation rate inexplicably skyrocketed) , 35% went to a public college in GA, 11% went to college out of state, 9% went to a technical college in GA, and 3% went to a private college in GA, the year after graduation. Interestingly enough, this college enrollment rate of 58% for Douglas County is lower than the state rate of 64%, in spite of a much higher graduation rate.

Since getting into college of some kind is relatively easy, the more important question is how do they do when they get there? A significant portion of the college enrollees from this class needed to take a remedial math course (24%) or a remedial reading course (10%). This means the students, or taxpayers, had to pay for courses that did not result in actual college credits, i.e. credits that counted toward an actual degree.

How can this be when students passed, and probably made As or Bs in,  literature and math courses in high school that cover the same content and skills as these remedial courses? I think the answer is obvious: the grades they received in high school had little to do with the knowledge and skills they actually attained. Their high school teachers did not require students to demonstrate mastery in order to pass the course, or even get good grades, and thus get credit. Such an outcome is all too frequent in our high schools, even though the GA DoE’s position is that students who earn credit can a course should be proficient in the curriculum.

Why isn’t this problem recognized and named to be the fraud that it is? Perhaps if local school districts were forced to pay for these remedial college courses, they would do a much better job ensuring that students had to acquire real knowledge and skills to earn credits for graduation.

This is part 5 of a running commentary on Chester Finn’s “The Fog of “College Readiness”” (National Affairs, Issue Number 30, Winter 2017). 

*Post graduation data from “High School Graduate Outcomes Report”,

Dishonesty in the School System: a Commentary on Chester Finn’s “The Fog of “College Readiness”” – part 3


And the colleges themselves are complicit in this fraud, often for similar reasons. They admit students who they know are not adequately prepared to take on credit-bearing courses, and then require them to complete remedial classes to catch up. Most students who are required to take these “developmental” courses never make it to classes that earn credit, and in time they leave school with nothing but debt and disillusion. – Chester Finn

Mr. Finn calls this systemic dishonesty “fraud.” I believe that is appropriate. Parents and students think they are getting one thing from their education, when in fact they are getting something much less. One would think, though, that colleges are defrauded too. But Finn says they are complicit because they know what they are getting, and at least some of them are fine with it. While remedial courses do not count towards college graduation requirements, they still bring in revenue from students and their parents.

Colleges are complicit because they know what is happening and do nothing to stop it. They have the power to disrupt the system by refusing to admit students who need remediation, or by not accepting diplomas from systems who produce a high proportion of graduates that need “developmental” courses. Yet for the most part they do not serve as a check and balance on a system that abuses public trust.

Douglas County had the highest graduation rate in its history in 2015 – close to 89%. Do we know how many of those graduates were truly ready for college? A look at early post-graduation data suggests that many were not. Of the 775 students who enrolled in a public college or university in Georgia the next school year, 10% needed remediation in reading, and 24% needed remediation in math (as high as 42% of the graduating class did not attend college).*

Do we know how many of these graduates are leaving “with nothing but debt and disillusion”? Not exactly, but if we look back a few years to the 2012 class we can gather some clues. 66% of the 2012 class enrolled in college in 2013 (this could be two or four year institutions). By 2016, the year those who got a 4-year bachelor’s could have graduated, only 11% of the graduating class had earned a post secondary degree (the state rate is better but still a dismal 15%). Assuming that all 66% went to a 4-year college, that means only 1 and 6 graduated in 4 years.

Ambition and optimism are laudable traits. So is this country’s long tradition as a place of second chances, a land where you can always start over, compensate for past mistakes, choose a new direction, and find the educational path that takes you there. But at a certain point, encouragement becomes damaging. It’s time for our K-12 school system and our institutions of higher education to take responsibility for their complicity in a system that lies to millions of students and their families every year.
– Finn

Our cultural belief in redemption, a fruit of our Judeo-Christian heritage, is a social asset. For one, it encourages the kind of risk-taking needed for a capitalist economy to flourish because we believe in learning and growing from our failure. But this requires being honest that failure is actually happening! Giving students good grades when they are actually failing to learn is “killing them with kindness.” It is empty flattery that develops in kids an inflated and inaccurate self-concept that is detrimental to learning, and undermines real confidence. What will it take for the public school system to admit and turn from their lying? Will you as a stakeholder help call education leaders out on their dishonesty?