Academic rigor

Preparing for college requires more than good grades. "College prep" may not mean "college ready.

Part of the College Readiness Resource Center, by College Success @ Perkins

By: Annie Tulkin, MS, Accessible College

When a student reaches college they will need to be able to perform academically, right alongside their sighted peers. Several laws governing the delivery of support change once a student graduates from high school, impacting the role of the student and the institution. (Read here for more on this.)  For some high school students learning with a visual impairment, and aspiring to attend college, a lack of exposure to rigorous expectations, critical thinking and work output, on fixed deadlines, may hinder their assessment of their academic skills.  

While a student may have “good” grades in a high school’s “college prep” curriculum, often, students learning with visual impairments in these classes encounter a well intentioned – but limiting – reduction in expectation, demands and output that may impact their ability to transition effectively, or successfully, into college level demands. Grades may suggest that a student has a set of skills that in reality, they have never had a chance to develop — as expectations are reduced with the good intent of not stressing a student, or by the lack of availability of accessible documents and assignments. As time progresses, the student with visual impairment may miss out on more and more learning as compared to typically sighted students; vocabulary acquisition, concept development and critical thinking are impacted, yet often, a student’s grades remain high.

Parents must support and advocate, and engage with their student’s educational team (including general education teachers) to demand rigor, and to reset expectations, demands and assessment. The goal is to allow the student and team to better understand their strengths and limitations, and to plan for post secondary life with greater, more accurate self awareness of skills and challenges. 

The value of making mistakes – and what you can learn from them

It’s important to understand that students learning with a visual impairment may not receive the same accommodations in college that they have received in high school. As noted earlier, the laws governing delivery of support, and the locus of responsibilities, change. A student in college will receive materials that are accessible, but they must have the skills to then make meaning from those materials, through writing, discussions and assessments such as tests. Course modifications do not occur; deadlines do not get extended as an accommodation.  Critical thinking and independent problem solving is assumed, in multiple courses, at the same time. 

Therefore, students need to start preparing early on by choosing academically rigorous courses in high school, and by enrolling in at least 4 academic courses every semester, to develop the time management skills, and stamina, to manage the work and ideas simultaneously, and to continually develop the assistive and access technology skills commensurate with their typically sighted peers.  Parents can help by advocating for high academic expectations early on in a student’s education, providing foundational skills in reading, writing and math, which will provide more opportunities for challenge, and independence, as students plan for next steps after high school.  

Grades, the gift of authentic feedback, and keeping expectations high

Making mistakes can often provide as much information to a teacher as “getting it right.” So, too, can feedback to a teacher and TVI about a student struggling to complete homework at home, independently, or in a reasonable amount of time.  So, if your student struggles with an academic task, you, as a parent or teacher, will have important, additional information to provide the educational team, and to possibly use to advocate for additional skill development. 

Yet, if a student regularly gets grades that indicate that they are struggling to complete an assignment completely and on time, like their typically sighted peers, it’s critical to explore what contributed to that struggle. Did the student understand the assignment?  Did they know where to start the assignment?  Did the student start the assignment too late to complete well or thoroughly?  Did they lack the working memory to remember the multiple choice options on a test that was read to them by a paraprofessional or via a screen reader? 

Learn to be curious, ask questions such as, “Why is this difficult for my student?  Is it due to lack of skills to access materials (maybe typing or screen reader skills), or is it due to lack of grade level reading or vocabulary skills?  Perhaps a student is struggling due to processing disorder (auditory, math, reading, etc.) or working memory challenges, making slow visual reading of large print, for example, very difficult to do effectively. Asking deep questions, and getting to the heart of the difficulty can create opportunities for appropriate interventions, learning strategies, and more authentic learning. This can lead to a greater sense of understanding of your student, and your student’s greater understanding of themselves – embracing strengths, and challenges.  

Course selection and rigor: College eligible vs college ready

Students should enroll in the most rigorous courses available. When appropriate and available, and when they meet the prerequisites, see if your student might be able to take classes at the honors or advanced level, not “college prep.” When curriculum and school rules allow, see if your student can have a varied course load, based on their skills and interest, and their ability to balance demands and workload. (For example, if possible, a college prep/regular level Math class, combined with an honors level History and English class.)

This will often provide more rigorous assignments, challenge them to work with more complex ideas, and help your student build stamina to work independently for a couple of hours a day on homework. As David Conley notes in his book, College Knowledge, there’s “college eligible” and there’s “college ready.” Even though a student has taken the basic requirements to be admitted into a college, they may not yet have the needed critical thinking skills, self advocacy, stamina or technology skills necessary to engage at the level expected once a student is enrolled in college, or engages in the workforce.  This takes time to develop.

Students should enroll in the most rigorous courses available.

Engaging in this full curriculum, with 4-5 college-prep or higher (honors, Advanced Placement) courses per year, and managing to keep up with hefty reading assignments and coursework independently (at home, without adult support, with sustained attention, tolerance for frustration, and independent problem solving) will not be easy, but it will help your student become skilled at managing the demands of college curriculum and coursework. And, if these tasks are difficult or nearly impossible for your student, this is important feedback too. Perhaps they need additional time to mature, or different study strategies, or they may have an undiagnosed learning disability in addition to a visual impairment, or they may have reached the highest levels of their cognitive abilities, which might suggest a different type of college or training experience, or a different path after high school.  Getting a plan in place now, with the support of your student’s transition counselor, TVI and school, will make life after high school more satisfying and successful.

Courses for college readiness 

Here’s the short list of courses that will help prepare your student for college demands. Remember that each college will have different requirements; check the details online on each college’s website. 

Additional considerations such as modified or unmodified curriculum, special education and paraprofessional support are important issues to explore early in your high school career, so that your student is as independent as possible and taking as challenging a course load as possible, by the end of their junior year. Skills such as time management, prioritization and critical thinking, develop over time.  Challenging, independent coursework helps to develop these skills.

Why is this important? 

College disability services look very different from high school. In many, if not most, cases, the supports that students have in high school will not carry into college; students will need the skills to learn independently (beyond receiving accessible course materials via the Disability Service Office, or DSO). Taking a closer look at what supports the students is receiving in high school and comparing that to the typical accommodations that colleges provide can be a good starting point to determine where the student may need to boost their skills, and readjust their expectations. In the next piece, “Readjusting expectations: Preparing for college,” we offer tips on becoming college ready and some helpful considerations about how accommodations for blind and visually impaired students differ in high school vs college.

Stay in the college readiness conversation.

Our team is committed to changing the way students with blindness and visual impairment prepare for life after high school. Stay up to date about the latest insight, research and resources.

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