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Remedial reform moves to high schools

School districts try to increase chances that graduates will finish college

The substantial number of high school graduates who land in higher education unprepared academically and have to take remedial courses to catch up are more likely than other students to quit before earning a two- or four-year diploma. Now, districts in several states are intervening more aggressively than in the past to better prepare struggling high school students for college-level classes.

“I think a lot of kids and parents really want a system where when kids graduate, they’re ready, and don’t have to participate in another course,” says Mary Jane Tappen, a deputy chancellor of the Florida Department of Education.

Nationwide, about half the high school graduates tested at state colleges and universities are not ready for math, and about a third aren’t ready for English. “And that’s just not acceptable,” Tappen adds.

And it’s a critical issue, experts say. Remedial education cost the U.S. $5.6 billion in the 2007-2008 school year, according to a 2011 study ( by the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based policy and advocacy organization that promotes college preparedness.

The eye-popping number represents $3.6 billion in direct costs of offering the courses and $2 billion in lifetime wages lost by students who dropped out of remedial classes before graduating, the study says. “The more you end the need for remediation,” says Bob Wise, president of the Alliance and former Democratic governor of West Virginia, “the better it is, ultimately, not only for a student’s economic outcome but also for the nation’s.”

Early intervention

Denver Public Schools and the states of Florida and Indiana are beginning to more aggressively identify high school students in danger of needing remedial courses after graduation.

Denver high school juniors who pass a college-readiness exam can start earning college credit in their senior year. But those who fail will be able to take remedial courses through a state community college in their senior year of high school, says Bernard McCune, executive director of college and career readiness for Denver Public Schools.

“Our goal as a district is not for our students to graduate from high school or even enroll in college—it’s for them to graduate from college,” McCune says.

In the past, seniors would take a fourth-year high school math class, such as probability and statistics. Now, seniors at risk of not being ready for college will take the remedial course so they are ready for first-year credit-bearing courses after they graduate, McCune says. Those remedial courses are taught either by a community college professor or a public school teacher who, with some extra professional development, has become an adjunct professor at one of the colleges with which the district has partnered.

Denver students who are still unprepared after graduation can enroll in a free summer bridge program in which they take remedial courses so they can start earning credits when they enroll in college. “We know what the data says about students who get into the developmental ed or remedial pipeline,” McCune says. “By offering classes during the summer, we’re giving them a better chance.”

Denver’s summer bridge program debuted this year with more than 100 students out of a graduating class of about 3,000. The math and English classes, taught by Community College of Denver and Western Colorado University professors, were held at three city high schools. “Most of the students passed their course and they will not need remediation when they go on to college,” McCune says.

The district plans to hold the classes again next year, McCune says, adding that it wasn’t difficult to convince graduates to take extra classes in the summer because Denver educators work closely with students to determine their post-high school goals.

“Getting a kid to say, ‘I’m in college, I want to take college courses, I don’t want to waste money on developmental courses,’ is easier than you might think,” McCune says. “Especially if you have a relationship with the student and they understand it’s in their best interest and you’re looking out for that.”

Communicating with parents

Florida began testing high school juniors for college preparedness two years ago. Juniors who don’t earn sufficient scores on regular end-of-year exams are given the Postsecondary Education Readiness Test (PERT) to determine what classes they will need in their senior year.

The classes can include algebra and an ELA course that emphasizes writing, literature, and reading about social studies and current events, Tappen says.

Students are given the PERT test again after their senior year. They can take it as many times as they want. Because the 2012-2013 school year was the first where seniors took the college-readiness classes, Florida is still analyzing the data to determine the students’ success rate, Tappen says.

In Indiana, a law passed in May requires the state’s Department of Education to develop guidelines for identifying high school juniors at risk of remediation and how to get them ready for college-level courses.

State Rep. Ed Clere, a Republican who sponsored the law, says nearly 30 percent of the graduates who went onto public colleges and universities from the two high schools in his urban-suburban district outside Louisville, Ky., needed remediation in math or English.

The law also requires schools to better communicate with parents of students who are not on track for college or careers.

“Too often, we find that a student is a senior, in the second semester, and parents are just becoming aware for the first time that there’s a problem,” he says. “That awareness needs to happen much earlier, while there’s still time to do something about it.”

College and the Common Core

A lack of alignment between what high schools are teaching and what colleges expect has, in part, driven the widespread need for remediation, says Wise, of the Alliance for Excellent Education.

But the Common Core K12 standards adopted by 46 states are a big step in making sure high schools are teaching students the skills colleges expect them to have, adds Wise.

“Common Core defines what college and career readiness means,” Wise says. “K12 has a benchmark, and by the same token, higher education understands what it is that K12 is increasingly preparing students for.”

The Common Core standards will require states to assess the college readiness of high school students. Bruce Vandal, vice president of Complete College America—an organization that works with lawmakers to enact policies aimed at increasing college graduation rates—says he hopes that even the handful of states that haven’t adopted Common Core will use these tests.

Allowing more students to earn college credit in high school—such as is being done in Denver—would be another big step in reducing the need for remediation, Vandal says.

His organization is working with the Dana Center at the University of Texas to develop a “fourth-year transition course” that could address not only high school students’ remedial needs but allow them to take—and get credit for—first-year college courses. The course being designed is a quantitative reasoning course that would be an alternative to college algebra, Vandal says.

“There’s no better way to get a student ramped up for college than to do college work while in high school,” Vandal says. “We’re going beyond remediation to where students may start college with a couple of credits.”

Wise says the line between K12 and higher education is indeed beginning to blur, with plenty of ramifications for remedial education. Along with dual-enrollment, states such as New Hampshire and Oregon are moving toward competency-based advancement of high school students. Under this system, students move up not simply by spending 180 days in a certain grade and passing a year-end exam, but by demonstrating that they have mastered a wide range of skills.

“We have to make sure that, because the standards have been raised, remedial rates don’t go up correspondingly,” he says.

Students who can’t fill skilled jobs required by the workforce because they failed to earn degrees will drag on the nation’s financial health, Wise adds. “If you have to remediate following high school, then you have an economy that in five to 10 years is going to require remediation as well,” he says.

Matt Zalaznick is senior associate editor.