As a college English teacher, I saw my share of students who were unprepared for the rigors of college work. I still see the shocked faces of teenagers who had been given A's and B's in high school only to learn that their college essays deserved no better than a D. For many, especially honor students, the disappointment was unbearable when I told them they had to take a non-credit remedial course to bring their skills up to college level.
After all these years, the situation has not changed for the better. A New York Times article last week reported that more than a million freshmen nationwide face the humiliation of taking remedial courses, many becoming so frustrated they do not graduate. According to the article, Michael Kirst, a Stanford University professor emeritus who has studied the rise in remediation, estimates as much as 30 percent of students enrolling at four-year colleges and 60 percent of those enrolling at community colleges take remedial courses.
One result is that our colleges are spending millions of dollars annually to teach skills that should have been taught in K-12. Blame and recrimination, however, will not fix the problem. Our secondary and postsecondary systems need to start collaborating in earnest if real change is to come.
Such collaboration is happening in some parts of the nation. In Florida, Ann McGee, president of Seminole Community College in Sanford, has been a leader in getting the two systems to work collaboratively.
"Seminole County has always been proud of its exceptional K-12 system, where the majority of students continue on to college," McGee told me. "However, it surprised everyone that over 70 percent of their students who enrolled at SCC needed math remediation. Looking at the data, it was easy to see that the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT) and the College Placement Test (CPT) simply didn't align in terms of the skills that were being measured."
Nine years ago, SCC's math chairman was so frustrated with the cost and headaches associated with remediation that he met with the high school principals to learn why so many of their students annually scored well on the FCAT but poorly on the CPT. Official numbers later would show that 71 percent of district students entering SCC needed at least one remedial math course.
The main problem became obvious: Florida was requiring only three years of math from grades 9-12. Most students, because of math phobia, did not take math in 12th grade. (Florida changed the law, requiring four years of math.) The chairman offered the principals a special course to reduce remediation, and he would bring the course to their campuses. Only one school, Oviedo High, initially accepted the challenge. SCC provided the course content and mentoring, and Oviedo's teachers taught the course.
Within a few years, the school reduced its remediation rate from 70 percent to 10 percent. After word got out, a group of SCC and Seminole County public schools administrators began meeting once a month for breakfast to collaborate, deciding the time had come to replicate the Oviedo program in all Seminole high schools.
The result was an introductory college course, Mathematics for College Readiness, required for seniors whose junior-year performance on the CPT demonstrated that they needed remediation. It is in six schools, including Oviedo, and will be offered at all of the county's nine high schools during the 2009-10 academic year.
McGee said the advantage of using this model is that it "teaches-up" to students, acting as a fourth-year math credit for high school graduation. It is not a remedial course, and it does not leave the stigma that bothers so many college freshmen.
Officials are tracking the data. The goal is to reduce the number of matriculating seniors needing remediation in math from 71 percent to 21 percent in the very near future. Numbers from 2007-08 for the pilot schools indicate that the rate for math remediation has declined to 59 percent.
SCC and district administrators presented the program to the Florida House Higher Education Committee last year. The committee liked Mathematics for College Readiness and wrote legislation requiring all Florida school districts to implement a similar course.
Although the course has become one of our infamous unfunded state mandates, McGee and her district partners are committed to using sweat equity to align their efforts.
"By testing students at the end of their junior year," she said, "we identify students who need remedial coursework and provide them with a way to get 'college ready' while still in high school. This saves the state money, and, more importantly, it saves students time and helps to keep them motivated toward graduation."