MFS Lessons Learned Part One: The What

As many readers know, in 2009 Michigan Future established the Michigan Future Schools (MFS) initiative, a high school accelerator designed to give start-up funding and capacity-building supports to new, small, college-prep high schools in Detroit. That project has now come to a close, but what’s emerged from our work is a set of learnings about what it really means to be “college ready,” and what high schools can do to ensure that their students don’t just get to college, but actually graduate. We’ve posted a presentation on our website that goes through our expanded definition of “college-ready” and is available for download. Here’s a summary of what we found.

More than a test score. First, college readiness is far more than a test score. Most conversations on college readiness center around whether or not students attain a “college ready” score on the SAT or ACT. However, a “college ready” score doesn’t come close to signifying a student’s actual readiness. It turns out that just 15% of students from the bottom income quartile who scored a “college ready” score on the SAT graduate from a four-year college.

GPA. So if test scores aren’t enough, what is predictive of college success? In the book Crossing the Finish Line, the authoritative source on which students graduate from which colleges and why, researchers found that a student’s high school GPA was far more predictive of their eventual college success than their scores on the SAT/ACT. And this finding held whether a student graduated from a “good” high school or a “bad” high school – a high GPA meant they were likely destined for college success.

GPA is more predictive than test scores because while test scores measure a student’s ability on a fairly narrow set of math and reading skills, GPA measures a whole range of academic habits and so-called noncognitive skills: does the student take good notes in class, ask her teacher for help, stay organized, complete assignments on time, and bounce back after failure? This large set of habits and skills are what students need to be successful both in high school and in college, and a student’s GPA offers a snapshot of those skills.

Academic mindsets. The question then becomes, how does a student develop the necessary academic habits and noncogntive skills? A highly influential 2012 paper from the Consortium on Chicago Schools Research took on this very question. And what researchers found, after reviewing decades of research on student motivation and noncognitive skills, was that it all comes back to a student’s academic mindsets. Specifically, they found that whether or not a student puts forth the effort and develops the habits needed for success depends on whether or not the student feels like they can be successful (competence), can improve with effort (growth mindset), feels like they belong in an academic community (belonging), and feels like the work they’re doing is important to them, both today and for their future (relevance).

These same student mindsets are equally important when students get to college. If they feel like they don’t belong, feel like they can’t do the work, and don’t feel a sense of purpose, they’re unlikely to stay long.

In other words, high schools would be wise to pay just as much attention to how students feel about themselves, their place in the world, and their future, as they do to test scores.

College writing. But even if a student develops the right mindsets, gets good grades, and gets a decent test score, they still cannot be certified “college ready.” Because there are certain academic skills that students need to exhibit repeatedly in college that they hardly practice at all in high school. Writing is one of those skills.

It’s not just that students have to write a lot more in college than they did in high school. But the writing they’re being asked to do is of an entirely different type. Lawrence McEnerney, director of University Writing Programs at the University of Chicago, describes the difference as follows:

“Often, what your instructors are asking of you is not just something better, but something different…We should note here that a college is a big place and that you’ll be asked to use writing to fulfill different tasks. You’ll find occasions where you’ll succeed by summarizing a reading accurately and showing that you understand it. There may be times when you’re invited to use writing to react to a reading, speculate about it. Far more often–like every other week–you will be asked to analyze the reading, to make a worthwhile claim about it that is not obvious (state a thesis means almost the same thing), to support your claim with good reasons, all in four or five pages that are organized to present an argument. (If you did that in high school, write your teachers a letter of gratitude.)”

 In sum, while most high schoolers write infrequently and are merely asked to summarize someone else’s thoughts, in college they’re asked to write all the time and do their own thinking, backed up with evidence. High schools need to offer students a lot of practice at this before they get to college.

College counseling. In addition to this broad set of mindsets, habits, and skills, if we want to focus on college success rather than simply access, we also need to make sure students are ending up at the right colleges.

A whole lot of factors can go into college choice, but for us, matching students to the right college means getting students to attend the most selective college they can get into, with a track-record of getting students to the finish line.

Low-income students are far more likely than their wealthier peers to undermatch, or attend a less selective school than they could have been admitted to. And this matters because students who undermatch are far less likely to graduate than observationally equivalent peers that end up at more selective colleges with more resources and higher graduation rates.

And regardless of selectivity, colleges vary significantly in both their overall graduation rates, and in the size of their gaps in graduation rates between white and black students. There’s an emerging set of concrete practices that institutions can use to ensure students are academically supported, receive sound advising, and receive needed financial supports. Getting students to the institutions that have adopted these practices and are getting high graduation rates is a large part of the college success equation.

Measuring what mattersAnd last but not least, high schools truly committed to students’ college success need to actually collect data on the ultimate metric of college success, to consistently refine their definition of college-readiness. Who’s graduating and who’s not? Why or why not? From which schools? And then based on that data, what habits, mindsets, and skills do our students need, and which colleges should they be attending?

We’re certainly not done learning, and we’d love to hear feedback on what we may have left out of our definition of college readiness. But the bottom line is that we need to take the college readiness conversation far beyond test scores, because to truly succeed in college, students require a complex set of knowledge, mindsets, habits, and skills – plus significant adult guidance. And if we aren’t all working on that, we’re unlikely to see better results anytime soon.

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Patrick Cooney

Patrick Cooney is a policy associate for Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future's mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy.

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