You pass the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, earn a diploma and head off to college. No sweat, right?
Not so fast.
Despite years of work to raise students' basic skills on the FCAT and improve graduation rates, a majority of the degree-seeking students who arrive at Florida community colleges are failing to pass their college placement tests in all subjects.
"I think it's a misperception that (the FCAT) is at the college level," said Timothy Beard, vice president of student development and enrollment management at Pasco-Hernando Community College. "It's not."
In 2006, the most recent year for which state data is available, more Florida students passed the College Entry-Level Placement Test (CPT) in math, reading and writing than at any point since 2001.
But those 19,020 community college students were just over 43 percent of the total. Statewide, more than 26,000 of their peers were deemed unready for college work and placed in zero-credit remedial courses.
While Pasco County students did better than the state average that year, with 50.7 percent passing the CPT in all three subjects at PHCC, just 39.8 percent of Hernando students did so. Central High students in Hernando passed at a 36.7 percent rate, while 32.7 percent of Nature Coast Technical High students did so.
At Springstead High, 43.9 percent of students passed all sections of the CPT that year, as did 44.3 percent of students at Hernando High.
Entrance requirements at four-year schools are stiffer, so students attending schools such as the University of South Florida or Florida State University typically pass the CPT at rates of 90 percent or better. Students can also place directly into college courses if they earn a minimum score on the SAT or ACT test.
But the challenge remains daunting at the community college level, and district and college officials in both counties have embarked upon a new push to raise those scores, with additional testing and courses to prepare college-bound students.
Starting this year, school districts across Florida must be prepared to give the college placement test to all college-bound high school juniors who earn a 3 or 4 on the five-point FCAT. Students who don't pass are entitled to remedial classes to prepare them for college, under new regulations passed last spring by the state Legislature.
In Pasco, officials are planning to administer the CPT to about 3,500 juniors, said curriculum supervisor Michael Cloyd.
Students who earn a passing score of 3 on the FCAT are often surprised when they fail the college placement test, he said.
"They passed (the FCAT), so they're thinking they did all right, but we want to make sure," Cloyd said. "The 4's have a pretty good likelihood of being successful. It's the level 3's that I'm most concerned about."
The district is developing a remedial math course just for college-bound students. And it is working to get the word out that students really do need to take college-prep courses if they're planning on going to college.
At Central High in Hernando, guidance counselors have begun raising the volume on that message.
"We lecture them," said Pat Barton, a guidance counselor at Central. "We don't start in the senior year; we start in the freshman year. We tell them, 'You have to be able to pass tests to do college work.'
"But they don't all listen," she added.
Nationally, community college students face an uphill battle compared with their counterparts at four-year schools, said Kay McClenney, director of the Community College Survey of Student Engagement at the University of Texas-Austin. They're more likely to come from low-income or minority backgrounds, she said, and they need more support.
"Many of them don't believe they truly belong there, but they're taking a chance on you and the college," she said.
"Fourteen percent of students who start community college never earn a credit," McClenney added. "Only about 41 percent of degree-seeking students obtain anything within six years."
Beard, the PHCC vice president, said he has often wished that K-12 districts would do a more thorough job of teaching students about careers and what they will need to succeed in college.
"Either (students) are not informed, or they're informed but it doesn't quite register what courses they'll need in college," he said.
But Hernando superintendent Wayne Alexander said many in the K-12 world are frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of accountability in higher education.
"One of the things the state has yet to do is define what college readiness is," he said, wishing aloud for a state testing system that would encompass post-secondary education. "It really boils down to who's going to hold the professors accountable."
Until that happens, Alexander plans to begin the college-preparation efforts even earlier than the state requires.
"What I want to do as soon as possible is put in a ninth-grade test," he said.
"What good is a test in 11th grade? That's a little late, don't you think?"
Tom Marshall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (352) 848-1431.