David Conley: Deconstructing College Readiness

David Conley is a policy analyst and professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Oregon. We asked him what it means to be college ready today and how students can acquire research skills for succeeding in college and their careers. (Interview posted: December 5, 2013)

 conley headshotIn educational circles, phrases like “college readiness” and “Common Core State Standards” can be fighting words, inviting debate and dissention among educators, librarians, students, and parents.

Then there’s David Conley. His life’s work has been to research college readiness and related policy issues. For decades he's asked, "What does it take to make students succeed in college?" A renowned policy analyst and researcher, David is Professor of educational policy and leadership at the University of Oregon and the CEO and CSO of the educational policy group, Educational Policy Improvement Center.

In October 2013 we interviewed David, asking him what it means to be college ready today, and how that definition will change in the coming years and decades. We also discussed his latest book, Getting Ready for College, Careers, and the Common Core (2013) and how he believes we can help students acquire the research skills they will need to navigate an increasingly crowded, complicated, and confusing web of information so they will succeed in college and in their careers.

PIL: Let’s begin with the sticky wicket of college admissions. In a 2012 interview, you said one of the shortcomings of the college admissions process is that it’s based on eligibility rather than readiness. What’s the difference? How do you define college readiness? You have recently called for a more comprehensive definition of college readiness. Why is it needed today?

David: Eligibility is established through grades, courses taken, and an admissions test score. Admissions officers use these to admit those who may be able to succeed. Then, historically, the general education intro courses, the Chem 101 or Psych 101-type courses, were used as the de facto admissions standard. Many students failed entry-level courses for a wide variety of reasons and ended up not continuing.

Readiness implies that the student’s preparation is well aligned with the full set of knowledge and skills necessary to succeed in postsecondary education. The emphasis here is on being able to succeed, not just on being admitted. Here’s my definition of college and career ready:

  • A college and career ready student possesses the content knowledge, strategies, skills, and techniques necessary to be successful in a postsecondary setting.
  • Not every student needs exactly the same knowledge and skills to be college and career ready.
  • A student’s college and career interests help identify the precise knowledge and skills the student needs.

Note the importance of understanding student interests and aspirations when considering how ready for college and careers they are. Most current eligibility measures do not take the student into account very much, instead relying on common “cut” scores for all students on a few measures, generally English and math tests. We’ve found that much more than that is required to succeed in college.

In fact, my readiness model, the Four Keys to College and Career Readiness, identifies 12 components and 41 specific aspects that the college and career ready student needs to master to be fully ready. Here are the Four Keys with their aspects and components:

©EdImagine Strategy Group, 2013

The reason we need this more comprehensive and detailed specification of college and career readiness is that too many students are failing to be properly prepared for postsecondary studies at a time when more and more students are going on to such studies and when the economy demands that workers have higher levels of education and training. Today’s young people need both a sound academic foundation and a set of learning skills and techniques that allow them to acquire new knowledge and be adaptive to new situations throughout their careers.

PIL: In a 2012 presentation, you discussed the tendency of some educational policy makers to “encapsulate college-readiness and put it into a form that’s amenable to a solution by policy that’s fairly simple and then wash their hands and move onto the next policy problem.” What makes this tendency problematic? Why should we all, from educators to librarians to students, look more closely at things like “cut scores” and increased “certification” by educational agencies?

David: It would be nice if all we had to do was find the magical cut score on a placement test in English and math that deem all students ready to succeed in college. But the more we study readiness, the more we learn that the old measures aren’t really very good at all at yielding information on what it really means to be ready to succeed.

For policymakers, rules around remediation are things they can control, so that’s where they make changes. California adopted the Early Assessment Program, which says that students who achieve a specified score on a short test accompanied by a writing sample do not need to take remedial courses if they want to attend a campus of the California State University. Connecticut specifies that four-year colleges cannot offer remedial courses. These sorts of policies, well intended as they are, reflect more what policymakers can control than what perhaps needs to be done.

Determining readiness requires what I call a “system of assessments,” not an assessment system. Such an approach gathers a much wider range of information on more readiness aspects and components. Some of this information can be low stakes, such as student self-reports and teacher ratings of students on “non-cognitive” factors, what I refer to as metacognitive learning skills. Others can be more complex student work products, such as research papers, investigations, and capstone projects. This information can then be combined with the more traditional measures of GPA, course titles, and SAT/ACT scores. The resulting profile can be used to judge readiness in relation to student aspirations.

Knowing something about what students want to do in college is important to understanding how ready they are. Not all students need exactly the same knowledge and skills to succeed. The undecided student clearly needs a strong foundational set of skills in English and math. Students with defined interests may need to augment those foundational skills in certain ways, or may be able to overcome shortcomings in an area not central to their aspirations with added strengths in areas that are central to achieving their academic and career goals.

This more nuanced and complex approach to readiness is not easily mandated through a uniform set of policies regarding remediation or cut scores. It requires much greater involvement by everyone involved in and affected by the readiness, admissions, and placement processes.

PIL: In your latest book, you discuss the importance of teaching students “research skills.” Why are research skills a key competency? You focus on teachers and what they can do, but what about libraries—and librarians—how do they fit in and what’s their role?

David: The ability to research and investigate topics is a true 21st century basic skill. It’s increasingly obvious that recalling from memory or accessing information from known sources is not a sufficient demonstration of the thinking skills required to succeed in college and the workplace. Increasingly, the expectation is the ability to formulate a problem in the first place, and then solve it; to collect the information necessary to formulate the problem and pursue its solution; to distinguish the credibility, validity, and value of source information; to collect enough information from a wide enough range of sources; to interpret all of that information intelligently and with a value-added component, and then to communicate the resulting synthesis in the most appropriate format from among many options.

©EdImagine Strategy Group, 2013

Few teachers and students define research in this fashion. For most, it is the process of “solving” a problem following a series of largely predetermined steps that students have been taught already. This sort of procedural process may be useful for neophytes to practice the essentials of the inquiry cycle and to familiarize them with the basic aspects of the research process, but it is not sufficient to prepare students for complex, unstructured, “fuzzy” problems, the type encountered increasingly in college courses and in the workplace.

Libraries and librarians can clearly play a crucial role in helping students and teachers understand this new research paradigm. In particular, they can help teachers develop assignments whereby students must first formulate the problem before attempting to solve it. The formulation process involves hypothesis generation and examination, which in itself requires examining a wider range of options before reaching a conclusion about the nature of the problem and the specific type of strategy best suited to solve it.

Similarly, when searching for source material, students need to be making many more decisions about the type of material necessary to solve the problem as formulated and the value and quantity of the sources they locate. How much information at what level of credibility and validity is necessary based on the nature of the problem at hand? These types of more sophisticated forms of analysis help learners develop the skills they will need in college and careers. They also help teachers develop better assignments going forward.

PIL: For the latest PIL research study, when we interviewed first-year students at six different US colleges in Fall 2012 during their first few months, many freshmen said they were both “overwhelmed” and “excited” about finding and using information for completing college-level research assignments. They were relieved to be free of rigid high school curricula and excited by the prospect of diving into research on topics they found more interesting. At the same time, however, they were overwhelmed at the prospect of sorting through and comprehending the voluminous amount of information available to them. Why do so many freshmen lack the cognitive strategies needed to conduct college-level research? Why don’t more of them ask for help?

David: Take a look at the Key Cognitive Strategies model I presented above. How many high school students ever even see something like that as a tool to help them understand what the inquiry process consists of? Keep in mind that even our highest achieving students generally just follow directions and do what they are asked to do. It’s only in the most remarkable situations that schools really challenge students rigorously to think about the nature of research and what it takes to understand and solve problems.

My research indicates that high school students write very few research papers, and when they do, they might write one or perhaps two long papers, which their instructors feel represent what students need to know how to do in college. In fact, analyses that my colleagues at the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC) in Eugene and Portland, Oregon, have found is that college courses and career training programs tend to expect students to complete lots of shorter assignments, in the 3-5 page range for college courses in particular.

High school students do not get much experience developing tightly organized, well structured, and thoroughly referenced papers or presentations of this nature. Instead, they may learn to write a six-paragraph essay based on the requirements of the state testing program or to prepare for the SAT or ACT writing sections. This type of formulaic writing does not in any way prepare students to undertake the more complex work they will encounter in college and many career-training programs.

As far as students asking for help, here, again, studies about students are informative. In fact, students most in need of help tend to be least likely to ask for it, for several reasons. First, many believe doing so indicates they don’t really belong in college in the first place, so they attempt to do it all by themselves. Second, some students simply have little experience asking for help, and colleges are far more complex institutional environments than high schools, which it makes it more difficult to get help. And, finally, some students do seek help only to be rebuffed or frustrated when a professor or campus advisor does not do what the student wants.

In all of these cases, students need to develop greater persistence and the skill of self-advocacy. This can be taught to high school students, although it rarely is. This characteristic is referred to by some as grit, determination, or tenacity. Regardless of the precise term employed, the principle is the same: students need to learn to become their own advocates and to take control of their lives by getting the help and assistance they need before it’s too late.

PIL: Our last question takes the long view. How will college-ready competencies change over the next decade as “disruptive technologies,” such as the MOOCs, make their way into college classrooms? Which competency is most overlooked today in the core standards that will matter later on? What should educators and librarians be doing today to better prepare students for tomorrow whether they go to college or start careers?

David: We are only at the dawn of competencies as legitimate and important measures of college readiness. In the mid-1990s, I developed a proficiency-based college admission system for the Oregon University System, called PASS, which was adopted and implemented on a pilot basis. We learned a lot about using competencies for admission purposes. I’m a little concerned that many of those lessons aren’t necessarily being reflected in discussions about competencies.

First, not everything important can be specified in a competency. High school teachers remain an important source of information on other aspects of student performance and understanding of material, and their expertise and observations should also be incorporated, but in ways that clearly complement competency determinations, not as the sole determinant of competency.

Second, competency systems favor students who take ownership over their own learning. This is particularly true of MOOCs and online learning in general. Students who know how to set and achieve goals, to manage their own time, to seek help, and to take initiative when necessary to go beyond the minimum generally fare much better than do students who lack these skills and attitudes. I fear that we might be leaving behind a whole segment of the student population if we over-rely on competencies without strong supports for those students who have not learned how to assert ownership over their own learning and who lack the personal management skills necessary to manage their learning.

Third, the whole needs to be greater than the sum of the parts. Competency systems need to be developed in ways that ensure the competencies do not become a checklist, but, instead, reflect a deep understanding of the course concepts as well as its content. This requires more sophisticated assessment measures than are currently used to gauge competency in many so-called competency-based courses currently. See the systems of assessment and profile models above for more details.

Librarians can and should become much more engaged as resources to help students not just demonstrate competency but to develop the kinds of deeper understanding necessary to truly master a course of study. Librarians can guide students toward materials that cast light on the big questions of the subject, and the organizing concepts necessary to connect and unite the specific competencies. They can suggest extensions and ways for students to get more deeply involved in what they are learning. And they can, of course, help the struggling student find resources that break down course content into simpler pieces that can be digested and integrated to reach the level necessary to demonstrate a competency.

David Conley lives in Eugene and Portland, Oregon. He is a professor of educational policy in the College of Education and founder and director of the Center for Educational Policy Research (CEPR) at the University of Oregon. In addition, he is founder, CEO, and Chief Strategy Officer of the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC); and president of EdImagine Strategy Group.

His latest book is entitled Getting Ready for College, Careers and the Common Core: What Every Educator Needs to Know (Jossey-Bass, 2014). He is also the author of numerous books and reports, including College and Career Ready: Helping all students succeed beyond high school. (Jossey-Bass, 2010), College Knowledge (Jossey-Bass, 2005), and Rethinking College Readiness (Educational Policy Improvement Center, 2007).

Smart Talks are informal conversations with leading thinkers about the challenges of educating and preparing college students to succeed in school and as lifelong learners in the digital age. The interviews are an occasional series, produced by Project Information Literacy (PIL).

PIL is an ongoing and national research study about how college students find and use information for courses and for use in their everyday lives. PIL is conducted in collaboration with the University of Washington’s Information School.

This interview about college and career readiness was made possible with the generous support of a research grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences (IMLS), creating strong libraries and museums that connect people to information and ideas. Smart Talk interviews are open access and licensed by Creative Commons:

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David Conley: Deconstructing College-Readiness (email interview), by Alison J. Head, Project Information Literacy, Smart Talk Interview, no. 17 (13 November 2013), is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License.