Putting Students to the Test to Make Them Go Farther, by Cherylyn Harley LeBon

lebon_smEducation experts, counselors and parents often debate the question, “How do we persuade students to start thinking about college?”

The answer, according to D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, is simple and innovative: Require all students in District schools to take a college-entrance exam and apply to a college.

Announced in January, Brown’s plan has been described as “dramatic” and “provocative,” and he defends it saying, “We have to get more young folks prepared to go to college.”

Brown’s idea already is under attack and is certain to become an even bigger target as it is considered by the D.C. government. Even a quick look at his plan reveals many unanswered questions. But Brown has managed to strike a profound chord among students and families when it comes to education. His proposal assumes that students can succeed and complete high school while pursuing higher education.

District schools are often held up as an example of what critics call the failure of public education, partly because of the city’s high dropout rate, which recently stood at a tragic 43 percent. With nearly half of any given freshman high school class not making it to graduation, it’s a small wonder that many students see dropping out as a viable alternative to earning a diploma.

But Brown’s plan turns conventional wisdom on its head by presuming that all D.C. students can and should take an ACT or SAT college entrance exam, and then apply to a college or another institution of higher learning. While it seems to lead toward a “nanny state” by forcing students to go through such a process, I appreciate Brown’s effort to address the dropout rate and force children to think about their futures.

One of the greatest barriers to higher education among students of color or those of lower socio-economic status is the fact that no one in their family ever attended college. The admissions process is confusing, even for a child from a family in which one or both parents have attended college. It’s even more intimidating for a student who does not have the benefit of a parent or sibling able to guide them through the application ritual.

Brown’s proposal does more than just compel students to engage in the college admissions process. It compels them to think about college as a genuine goal, a realistic option and a path to success. For many, it may be the first time they even entertained such an idea and visualized a realistic path for getting there. It’s also quite possible that the process would be a self-fulfilling prophesy for some students who might otherwise gravitate toward the 43 percent of their peers who drop out of school.

Some critics question how to pay for such a program, and Brown says he has sketched out the cost, but, in fact, it may be less than estimated. For example, the College Board, which is responsible for the SAT, routinely provides 100 percent fee waivers for qualifying students from low-income families. As for the college application fee, many institutions similarly waive or reduce this fee for qualified students. Again, this may require additional paperwork and time, but I think the investment of time in one’s future is worth it. Fee waivers also would serve to underwrite part of Brown’s plan, virtually taking the issue of finance off the table.

I still question requiring that children apply to a college when the city council previously wasn’t supportive of school choice. I also want to see how Brown’s plan would ensure that students actually are prepared to enter college. Without prerequisite schooling, the mandate is meaningless.

We need to take baby steps with respect to this plan but encouraging children — especially students of color in Washington — to think about their futures is a plan that can yield tremendous dividends not just for the students but for the District as well.

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Cherylyn Harley LeBon, a member of the national advisory council of the Project 21 black leadership network, is a former senior counsel for the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee. Comments may be sent to [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @HarleyLeBon.

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