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Standardizing College Readiness

ExploringNCTEhistoryThe following post is the first in a new series by Jonna Perrillo, NCTE’s Historian.

What is college readiness? This month’s ushering-in of a new SAT exam, designed to mirror strands of the Common Core, proposes a new mechanism by which to offer a more coherent and standardized response to a question at the forefront of contemporary education initiatives. By these standards, college readiness for literary studies means the ability to analyze challenging texts in depth. Yet, the history of thinking about college readiness is both longer and more complex than we often realize. It is also one in which NCTE has played an essential part.

A concern over college readiness—and whether high school English classes had become exercises in letter writing and telephone manners—began in earnest in the late 1950s. Driven by Cold War anxieties, educators and policymakers fixed their attention on the high school curriculum and saw its reform as key to the nation’s security. In 1959, in the shadow of Sputnik’s launch, the National Defense Education Act transformed K–12 math and science education with the hope of preparing more students for careers in science and industry. Two years later, the US Office of Education founded Project English to spur the design and promotion of reading methods that were more analytical, more replicable, and more scientific.

NCTE served as a needed bridge between improving high school teaching methods and determining what articulation required. In May 1960, the Council’s Committee on High School–College Articulation surveyed over 116 colleges to discern what literary studies at the college level entailed and what high schools should do to prepare adolescents for this work. The responses they received revealed at least two different schools of thought.

The first of these—held by what the committee described as “more ambitious” colleges—called for “intensive analysis of a relatively small number of masterworks.” By “analysis,” the colleges meant a focus on “denotation and connotation,” “the relation between the various structural elements,” and “the whole catalogue of rhetorical techniques which make meaning of the piece.”1 In endorsing the same New Critical methods of interpreting canonical texts that were being taught in college classrooms, this mimetic model of college readiness sought to treat high school students like younger college students.

A second position argued that close-reading instruction was “the job of the colleges” and that high schools instead should offer survey courses in British and American literature.2 In providing students with a broad context and knowledge base, high schools would prime students for the more specific and expert-driven work of college classroom. This service-based approach more clearly differed from college work, but it framed whatever value high school English courses offered in their preparatory function all the same.

Both the mimetic and the service models privileged college-level treatment of literature at the cost of recognizing what high school literary studies should be in its own right. But they set the groundwork for some of the most important debates and questions taking place in English education today.

What should high school English classes accomplish beyond preparing students for the next step?

How do fiction and nonfiction influence and even develop the adolescent mind in unique ways?

Should certain big ideas or ethical questions hold equal importance as skill development, and if so, which ideas?

How do we balance the need to teach textual analysis with the desire to promote recreational reading practices?

These are questions English teachers often consider, but they held little visibility in the 1960s articulation studies and continue to hold little currency in education policy today.

To be sure, important changes have developed in the conversation about college readiness between the 1960s and now, and some can be found in the 2011 document “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing,” coauthored by NCTE, the National Writing Project, and the Council of Writing Program Administrators. The intellectual habits of mind that the report identifies as critical for success in college—curiosity, openness, engagement, creativity, persistence, responsibility, flexibility, and metacognition—have no real analog in the 1960s articulation studies. Yet the habits are essential for many reasons, including that they identify academic skills teachers of all grade levels should value and teach, without segregating and subordinating high school English teaching to a mimetic or service approach, specifically.

As NCTE’s work in the 1960s reminds us, we cannot assume there is consensus around the best approach to or meaning of college readiness, even as we develop new tools for trying to gauge it and to standardize the term. At best, it is a complex idea that speaks both to disciplinary mastery and intellectual maturity. As a result, it is important that we ask what larger beliefs about disciplinary knowledge and what aspects of learning are most valued in any given definition put forth. The new SAT will likely do a better job of measuring some needed abilities for college English, but it will remain the province of teachers and NCTE to ensure that a wide range of thinking skills and approaches to reading literature are valued just as much.


  1. NCTE Committee on High School–College Articulation, “What the Colleges Expect,” High School–College Articulation of English (Champaign, IL: NCTE, 1963), 3.
  2. Ibid, 3.