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Standards gap means more remedial work

Florida's community colleges are preparing to start the year with brand-new entrance standards, while high schools continue graduating students under the same old standards.

The result to taxpayers: Far more money must be spent teaching high school material to college freshmen.

In the past few years, about 60 percent of the 33,000 high school graduates who later enrolled in community colleges required at least one remedial course after failing the math, reading or English placement tests.

This fall and next, the state's 28 community colleges will start using higher passing scores on those tests. If student scores stay at current levels, more than 80 percent of students will fail at least one of the three tests. The additional cost: about $6-million _ on top of the current $50-million cost _ to pay instructors to teach the necessary classes.

This spring, it looked as if the high school curriculum would be tougher when the Legislature passed a bill requiring all 67 school districts to increase graduation standards to a 2.0 grade point average and at least one college-prep algebra class.

But because an amendment allowing school prayer was attached at the last minute, Chiles vetoed the bill. The Cabinet later passed a resolution urging school districts to raise their graduation standards voluntarily, but it can't force any district to do so.

State Education Commissioner Frank Brogan said he hopes districts increase their standards to reduce the need for remedial classes.

Meanwhile, he favors raising placement test scores now, even though it will mean higher remediation costs for at least the next several years.

"This is one of those issues where you have to start somewhere," Brogan said. "This is a systemic problem. . . . Sooner or later there has to be a first year."

Analysts with House education committees found that students who take traditional college-prep courses _ four years of English composition and reading and three years of math, including geometry and algebra II _ are highly unlikely to require any remedial courses.

According to a report released by the committees in January, the reason most students don't take college prep courses is simple: They don't have to. And they know they can take them later, in community college.

High school students' decisions cost the state dearly.

In recent years, the state has spent about $50-million a year to teach college-prep material to new students entering community college. Much of that goes for the so-called non-traditional student, including adults, recent immigrants and full-time workers hoping to advance professionally.

But according to state statistics, nearly one-third of all remedial education course sections are filled by students who graduated from high school within the previous three years.

Together, these recent graduates account for more than $18-million of the remediation budget.

"We spend a million and a half dollars for remediation, and, sure, we'd rather put it elsewhere," said Paul Gianini, president of Valencia Community College in Orlando. At Valencia, 77 percent of new high school graduates require at least one remedial course.

Too many high school students, he said, have values that taxpayers pay for later: Kids would rather take easy courses, avoid homework and work in a mall to pay for cars and clothes.

Students are supposed to get expert advice on which courses to take, but high school guidance counselors said that with an average of 500 students per counselor, it's nearly impossible to help each student. Even when guidance is given, students often fail to heed it.

"It's still America," said Marshall Koppel, president of the Florida School Counselors Association and a guidance counselor at Pinellas Park High School. "The kids get to make the choices."

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Davie, chairwoman of the House Higher Education Committee and a proponent of higher graduation standards and higher placement test scores, said she plans to back another bill next year to increase graduation standards.

She said she hopes a "clean" standards bill can pass, unencumbered by school prayer, since Chiles is likely to veto another prayer bill. She added, though, that prayer proponents probably would be able to tie the two measures together if they want. "There's nothing we can do to stop them from doing it again," she said.

Old and new "cut scores" _ scores needed to avoid placement in remedial classes _ on Community College Placement Tests, with current and projected pass rates:

Test Old cut Old pass New cut New pass

subject score rate(%) score rate(%)

Reading 72 64 83 43

English 78 64 83 55

Math 51 33 72 19

Source: Florida Division of Community Colleges

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