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City officials say college readiness rate should double by 2016

By 2016, the proportion of students who graduate from city high schools ready for college-level work will double, Department of Education officials told skeptical City Council members today.

The ambitious projection, made during a hearing on college and career readiness, would require growth that far outstrips even the most liberal assessments of the Department of Education’s recent record of improvement.

But even then most students would not be considered “college-ready.” In 2010, when the city touted a 61 percent four-year graduation rate, just 21 percent of students who had entered high school in four years earlier met the state’s college-readiness requirements.

A disjuncture has long been visible between what city high schools require for graduation and what the City University of New York expects from new students. Three quarters of the students enrolling in CUNY’s two-year colleges must take remedial math or reading classes, and that number has risen along with college attendance rates in recent years, especially as CUNY has toughened its standards.

Testifying before members of the council’s committees on education and higher education, UFT President Michael Mulgrew accused the city of practicing “social graduation” by giving high school diplomas to students who must repeat high school-level work before starting college classes.

But until recently, high school graduation, not college readiness, was considered the gold standard for success testified Shael Polakow-Suransky, the DOE’s chief academic officer. He said school officials had been adjusting their priorities to meet rising expectations and were confident that initiatives already underway would substantially change the picture.

In particular, he said, new curriculum standards known as the Common Core that are being rolled out this year would push students to develop critical thinking skills required for college-level work.

“It’s not just about getting to a number on a test,” Polakow-Suransky said. “It’s about resilience, persistence, being able to use your mind well, being able to think critically to solve unfamiliar problems.”

Officials also said they are optimistic about plans Mayor Bloomberg sketched out in his State of the City speech last week to open more schools that bridge high school and college instruction and expand the city’s career and technical education high schools, which are designed to prepare students to choose between college and entering the workforce.

Since 2008, CUNY and the DOE have swapped data about students in order to learn more about what it takes to prepare high schoolers for success in college. Now, collaboration between the two school systems “is the strongest it’s ever been,” testified John Mogulescu, a dean in charge of CUNY’s relationship with the city schools.

But Mogulescu said the two institutions had also demonstrated a “joint failure” to let students know just how challenging college is, adding that CUNY would soon launch a public awareness campaign to explain college readiness.

“We think it is the responsibility of our admissions folks to work more with the community,” he said. “I am as impatient as you are to make the kinds of changes you are talking about.”

The hearing drew protest from the Urban Youth Collaborative and Coalition for Educational Justice, activists and students who held a press conference to call attention to even lower rates of college readiness among black and Latino students and to demand that the city invest more in college preparation initiatives.

Council members echoed many of the students’ suggestions, championing the College Now program that allows high school students to take CUNY courses before graduating and urging the department to provide more one-on-one counseling about college admissions and financial aid. Some guidance counselors work with as many as 500 students at a time, said Robert Jackson, chair of the council’s education committee.

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