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READY OR NOT // HERE THEY COME TO COLLEGE

In the middle of his senior year of high school, Matt Shafer had to sign up for another math course to get the credits he needed for graduation.

He chose Consumer Mathematics, a lower-level course that covers the kinds of basic skills needed to balance a checkbook and buy a car.

"It was an easy credit," said Shafer, 19, who graduated from St. Petersburg High School in June. "I don't really like math. I just wanted to get a credit."

Shafer got the credit. He got his diploma. But he didn't get all the math he needed. Upon entering college, Shafer took a placement test and discovered he was not ready for college-level math.

Now, just four months after graduation, he spends an hour every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at St. Petersburg Junior College with more than 30 other students _ most of them recent high school graduates _ taking a remedial math course. They're studying fractions.

Shafer is one of more than 10,000 Florida high school graduates who enter college each year unprepared for college-level work. He needs work in math. Others need work in reading or writing. Some need work in all three.

This lack of preparedness is a source of frustration for teachers in high school and college, not to mention the problems it causes students. And it costs the state more than $13-million each year to have these students learn _ or relearn _ things routinely covered in high school.

Blame can be shared by students and educators.

"I realize some students are goofing off," said Sen. Don Sullivan, R-Seminole, chairman of the Senate education committee. "But if you're passing all your classes and you're headed for graduation, why would you think you're not ready for college? I think the schools could do more."

Many educators agree. And it appears this is the year to try to do something about it.

Several school districts, including Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas, are working on plans to discourage students from taking cream puff courses, and to encourage them to plan their futures.

And this year for the first time, college-bound students all around the state will have a chance to take the college-placement test in their sophomore year of high school. It's intended as an early wake-up call for students who think they're ready for college.

"We have this middle majority of students wandering through high school just getting by, just getting the credits they need for a diploma," said Florida Education Commissioner Frank Brogan. "They might end up getting their diploma, but that doesn't guarantee them that they're ready for college. They're not ready."

"Wasted opportunity'

Educators are not a happy bunch when the state's college readiness report comes out each year. For the three years it has been in existence, the report has been nothing but bad news.

The latest report, covering students who entered college during the 1993-94 school year, showed that fewer than 6 of 10 of the college-bound graduates could pass all three sections of the college entrance exam. (Please see chart.) That means more than 40 percent _ 14,797 students _ weren't quite ready for college. And those are the high school graduates who go to college.

The numbers are cause for concern and they've been getting worse. Of students entering college in 1991-92, 60 percent passed all three sections of the test. The next year, it slipped to 58.4 percent. The most recent report showed 57.8 percent passing the three sections.

"I don't see any justification for high schools to put out a product that's only 57 percent effective," Sullivan said.

Whether or not it's fair, the report lumps together two very different groups: the students headed to a state university and those headed to a state community college.

The university-bound students are well prepared. Statewide, better than 9 of 10 of them pass all three portions of the entrance exam. Perhaps that shouldn't be surprising: With their entrance requirements _ a combination of SAT scores and grade point average _ the universities weed out a great number of students.

The state's community colleges have no such entrance standards: A high school diploma or general equivalency will get you in. For the community college-bound graduates, 4 of 10 are deemed ready for college study. A clear majority need some sort of remedial work.

"The ones who take the higher-level courses, the college prep courses, are ready," said James Hamilton, general director of secondary education for Hillsborough County schools. "It's the kids who are not focused and are not taking the more challenging courses that we need to worry about.

"The real wasted opportunity occurs in the last two years of high school, when they think they can cruise along to graduation."

The fact is that students can cruise. They can earn a diploma without setting foot in an algebra class. The trouble comes when they decide to go to college and find out they're not ready. For those students, the word "remediation" doesn't really fit.

"Remediation means you had it, but you forgot it," said Catherine Fleeger, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction for Pinellas schools. "It isn't remediation if they were never exposed to it."

School officials think they can turn things around by getting those mid-range students to buckle down and take tougher courses. They also hope to get them to choose an academic path as early as eighth grade.

That's easier said than done. How do you persuade teens to start thinking past tomorrow, to take courses that will force them to work?

"We fight that battle all the time _ students who don't want to take the challenging courses," said Carol Rivenbark, assistant principal at Hillsborough High School in Tampa. "Some of them don't want to be challenged. Often they take an easier course to get that high grade point average. That higher GPA doesn't help if you're not ready to take college algebra."

And, human nature being what it is, sometimes students don't listen.

"When a teacher tells you, "You need this for college,' it doesn't really make an impression," said Demian Chicco, 19, who graduated from St. Petersburg High in 1994 and now is taking a remedial math course at SPJC. "It may be true, but people have been telling us that all our lives."

Around the state, educators think the key might be in eliminating the temptation. Scrap the Mickey Mouse courses.

In Pinellas County, lower-level courses such as Fundamental Math I and II aren't options any more. Neither is General Math I and II. More are on the chopping block.

Still, a review of course enrollments in Pinellas shows that fewer students took Algebra I last school year compared with four years before. And fewer students took Algebra II compared with the previous year. Enrollment is up in some higher-level math courses, such as Pre-Calculus and Advanced Calculus. But Pinellas officials want to see more students in all those college-prep classes.

Pinellas isn't alone.

"It's becoming less and less possible to graduate without taking algebra and those other courses you need for college," said Mary Giella, assistant superintendent in charge of instruction for Pasco County schools. "We need to get students to start thinking about what they want to do, and what they'll need to get there, instead of floating through high school and waking up two years later."

"They weren't ready'

Teacher Joseph Hargray busily scribbles fractions on the blackboard in room TE 207 at St. Petersburg Junior College's Gibbs campus. He has a chalk-dust handprint on the back of his chocolate brown slacks. He put it there minutes before, after he erased the board in his last class.

Hargray doesn't have time to wash the chalk off his hands. He's too busy getting his students ready for college-level algebra and trigonometry.

"I think a lot of these students are the ones who took basic math in high school," Hargray said. "Their parents didn't demand more and their teachers didn't demand more. And they didn't see any need to take a tougher math course.

"So they weren't ready when they came here."

Hargray's students all have good things to say about him. He explains things well. He has energy to spare. He makes things interesting. Many say that if their high school teachers had been like Hargray (who taught in high school for 22 years), they wouldn't have to take college remedial courses.

Hargray shakes his head. Students do well not because he's all that different, he says, but because they have changed. Now they're in college.

"The students here are the ones who want to be here; they want to do something," said Shafer, who plans to go into law enforcement. "If you don't do the work here, forget about it."

But many high school students regard community college as an extension of high school. They put off taking the challenging courses, figuring they'll get to them in college.

Many college students taking remedial courses say it would have helped if they had taken the college placement test in high school. But they warn that the schools will have to do more than giving a test and changing course offerings if they truly want students to be ready.

Amber Davis, a 1995 Boca Ciega High School graduate, took algebra in high school. So did Malcolm Finkley, a 1995 Pinellas Park High grad. Both are now taking remedial math at SPJC.

"I felt like I slipped through some system," Davis said. "When I took the college placement test, I felt like I didn't know anything."

Fleeger of Pinellas County schools said the district's plan for improving college readiness is supposed to change what goes on in the classroom. It's supposed to change students' attitude toward their classwork, by making them more goal-oriented.

"I want them in courses that are meaningful to them," Fleeger said. "We're talking about accountability beyond whether students pass a class or do well on a test score."

Teachers and administrators at the community colleges are optimistic about efforts to prod students to become more serious.

"It would be better for everybody if high school students had a better idea of where they were going," said Bonny Peters, a math teacher at SPJC and a former high school teacher.

"A lot of them just don't think ahead to college. Or they think of college as being like 13th grade. Then they realize this isn't Kansas anymore."

_ Times education reporter Stephen Hegarty can be reached at shegarty@sppimes.com or at 893-8242.

ARE THEY READY?

The percentage of high school graduates entering community and four-year colleges who passed the college entrance exam.

Headed to community college 41.1%

Headed to 4-year college 92.2%

Combined 57.8%

Are kids ready for college?

The percentage of local high school graduates who passed all three sections of the college entrance exam.

Community Four-year Combined

college college

Citrus 53.5% 96.9% 69.3%

Hernando 35.4% 88.7% 51.1%

Hillsborough 42.7% 93.8% 65.3%

Pasco 34.0% 91.8% 55.3%

Pinellas 43.6% 94.1% 59.4%

State totals 41.1% 92.2% 57.8%

A look at Florida colleges, universities

Below is a list of colleges and universities that bay area high school graduates attend in large numbers. The chart shows the percentage of students entering those schools who demonstrate that they are ready for college-level study.

COMMUNITY, JUNIOR COLLEGES

Math Writing Reading All areas

Central Florida 73.1% 74.1% 73.5% 53.2%

Hillsborough 61.8% 61.8% 70.2% 41.4%

Pasco-Hernando 48.1% 58.4% 70.8% 33.7%

St. Petersburg 55.7% 69.8% 79.4% 44.4%

UNIVERSITIES

Florida State 98.7% 98.2% 98.7% 96.4%

Florida 99.2% 99.1% 99.1% 98.1%

South Florida 95.5% 94.8% 94.9% 88.9%

A look at bay area high schools

The chart shows the percentage of students from each high school who passed the three sections of the college entrance exam.

Pinellas

Math Writing Reading All areas

Boca Ciega 58.3% 74.8% 79.1% 50.4%

Clearwater 71.9% 79.5% 84.2% 59.1%

Countryside 77.2% 87.5% 92.4% 74.1%

Dixie Hollins 56.3% 72.3% 82.1% 50.0%

Dunedin 67.8% 81.5% 86.3% 61.0%

East Lake 76.5% 77.2% 89.5% 65.4%

Gibbs 43.9% 68.2% 78.8% 40.9%

Lakewood 61.1% 77.9% 81.1% 51.6%

Largo 66.2% 82.3% 88.5% 60.8%

Northeast 60.2% 68.0% 78.1% 46.9%

Osceola 66.7% 82.8% 81.7% 63.4%

Pinellas Park 69.2% 71.8% 76.9% 53.0%

Seminole 73.4% 84.2% 91.3% 65.2%

St. Petersburg 68.4% 78.9% 78.9% 57.9%

Tarpon Springs 74.6% 82.0% 86.1% 63.9%

District totals 68.0% 78.9% 84.8% 59.4%

HILLSBOROUGH

Math Writing Reading All areas

Armwood 75.2% 74.4% 81.4% 62.0%

Bloomingdale 87.1% 84.8% 92.4% 77.6%

Brandon 74.9% 73.9% 78.4% 60.3%

Chamberlain 80.6% 83.0% 86.4% 69.0%

East Bay 77.0% 77.0% 82.0% 68.0%

Gaither 81.5% 83.8% 89.3% 71.4%

Hillsborough 55.1% 60.2% 68.4% 40.8%

Jefferson 60.0% 42.0% 54.0% 30.0%

King 77.2% 77.8% 80.2% 65.4%

Leto 62.0% 62.0% 64.5% 37.2%

Plant City 79.7% 80.8% 81.4% 69.2%

Plant 92.2% 85.6% 86.9% 79.7%

Robinson 66.7% 75.4% 71.0% 52.2%

District totals 78.0% 77.8% 82.4% 65.3%

PASCO

Math Writing Reading All areas

Gulf 69.8% 79.1% 86.0% 61.6%

Hudson 67.4% 76.7% 90.7% 62.8%

Land O'Lakes 63.9% 75.9% 78.3% 50.6%

Pasco 69.1% 69.1% 72.7% 54.5%

Ridgewood 69.3% 76.1% 81.8% 59.1%

River Ridge 33.3% 59.0% 69.2% 20.5%

Zephyrhills 76.1% 80.3% 83.1% 63.4%

District totals 66.2% 75.1% 80.9% 55.3%

HERNANDO

Math Writing Reading All areas

Central 57.5% 60.0% 67.5% 45.0%

Springstead 73.6% 78.2% 86.2% 63.2%

Hernando 52.8% 54.7% 73.6% 35.8%

District totals 63.9% 67.2% 78.3% 51.1%

CITRUS

Math Writing Reading All areas

Citrus 83.1% 86.2% 86.2% 73.8%

Crystal River 86.7% 73.3% 76.7% 56.7%

Lecanto 78.5% 83.5% 81.0% 72.2%

District totals 81.0% 82.1% 81.6% 69.3%

Source: Florida Department of Education

Getting up to speed

After taking the three-part college entrance test, students who aren't ready for college-level work are required to take one of the remedial, non-credit courses.

WRITING: Basic Writing I: Students work on their sentence structure in paragraph-length writings to develop skills in grammar, mechanics and vocabulary.

Basic Writing II: Students write short essays to improve their skills.

READING: Basic Reading I: Students work on basic skills _ such as recognizing main ideas in short passages, as well as understanding word meaning in context _ that will help develop reading comprehension.

Basic Reading II: Students read essays and passages from a textbook to improve reading comprehension. They work on critical reading skills.

MATH: Developmental Math: Students learn to work with fractions, decimals, statistics, some geometry and perhaps some equations.

Introductory Algebra: Akin to a high school algebra course. Students work with equations, negative and positive numbers, translating word problems into equations.

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