THE YELLOW brick road to college begins in the Munchkin Land of middle school, but too few students and their parents realize that.
According to a recent study by ACT, which administers one of the two major college entrance tests, too many eighth-graders do not realize that the courses they choose for their freshman year in high school are the critical first step in getting to college.
Incoming ninth-grade students don't always understand that they must begin the math and science sequences with algebra and biology or they may not have completed by senior year the core coursework that most colleges and universities require.
"And if you are not in a pretty good math sequence or science sequence by eighth grade, you are not going to be ready for algebra and biology and you are not going to end up where you should," said Richard J. Noeth, director of ACT's Office of Policy Research.
High school students and their parents often do not realize that there is a world of difference between the requirements for a high school diploma and those to get into college, he said.
As evidence, the ACT report found that only about half the students taking the college placement exam were also taking the core college prep courses.
This kind of disconnect should be corrected by school guidance counselors, but they are overwhelmed with their student caseload and are often called upon to handle nonacademic issues that keep them from the essential business of course selection.
The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students. But the National Center for Education Statistics reports that the national average is one counselor for every 315 students.
In some schools, the ratio may be as high as 1-to-600, and in some schools there are no counselors at all.
Add to that the fact that in most high schools practice SAT tests are being administered to all high school sophomores during classroom time, increasing the pool of students at the counselor's door with college expectations.
It is no surprise then that almost 90 percent of the students surveyed by ACT reported they selected courses with the help of their parents or friends.
"Parents and friends certainly have the students' best interests at heart and are strong sources of support," said Noeth. "But unless the school district has a formal parent information program that focuses on education and career planning, parents may not always be well enough informed to provide accurate advice."
Advice such as: Most colleges require algebra I, geometry, algebra II and another challenging math course, such as pre-calculus, calculus or trigonometry. A series of general math courses or business math courses won't get it done.
Colleges also want three years of English, at least two of a foreign language, and a science sequence that includes biology, chemistry and physics. Again, general science courses won't get you into college.
"Everybody wants to help," said Noeth, "but there have to be structures available, beginning in middle school. Middle school counselors are there to deal with educational transitions. There are courses that are imperative to take. Everyone should be right on that, making sure all the kids know."
Several states, including Texas and Indiana, require all students to take college preparatory sequences unless a student opts out.
"That makes obvious sense," said Noeth. "Everyone is prepared from the beginning."
Noeth said the most telling responses to the ACT survey came from high school seniors who were asked what they would have done differently.
"They said they wish they had known more in eighth and ninth grades," he said.
"When we asked what advice they would give middle school students, they all said the same thing: 'Work hard and make sure you are taking the right classes.'"