New Approach to the Need for Remedial Education

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Educators and policymakers are beginning to focus on the question of why so many youths entering college need remedial courses in reading, writing and math.

The simple answer from the Southern Regional Education Board and the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education is that graduating from high school is no longer the same as being ready for college.

Though most people have long assumed that the two events were pretty much synonymous, a new policy brief released by the two groups concludes that the push to increase the number of high school graduates has resulted in a diminution of standards, which now fall short of college entrance levels.

The brief, entitled “Beyond the Rhetoric: Improving College Readiness Through Coherent State Policy,” finds that part of the fault is found in the lack of communication and partnership between those in control of pre-school through 12th grade education and those in control of post secondary education.

And it blames the low percentage of college freshmen who complete degrees on the poor preparation those student received before they reached college.

As many as 60 percent of entering freshmen need remedial education, primarily to shift from rote type learning – needed to polish off those standardized tests and exit examination in high school – to the kind of critical thinking skills needed to conquer higher education courses. And this brief saddles the No Child Left Behind initiative with a large portion of the blame because of its pressures on states and school to “minimize” the number of students who do not receive a diploma.

“No Child Left Behind has reinforced this tendency, as the law holds states accountable for high school graduation rates irrespective of proficiency levels represented by the diploma,” the brief states. “Despite competing pressures to ensure that all high school graduates are college ready, states have found it politically difficult to set high school exit exams at higher levels. It is no surprise, then, that many students who earn a high school diploma are far from being college ready.”

The problem goes beyond those students who just scrape by in high school, according to the brief.

“It is not so well known that many high school students who fulfill all the college preparatory requirements likewise arrive at state colleges and universities unprepared. That is, a college prep curriculum is necessary but not sufficient to ensure college readiness,” the brief states. And it maintains that the popular tests needed to gain college access, such as the SAT and ACT, are also poor predictors of college readiness.

Unlike high schools, the brief states, colleges aren’t responsible for graduation rates; it calls for state colleges to be more accountable to their states for what they are or are not producing.

While many states have attempted to strengthen college readiness of students, few have set standards for critical thinking needed for math, writing and reading, or appropriate cut-off scores to denote those who pass or fail.

The brief offers what it calls a “comprehensive and systematic college readiness agenda” in six steps and calls on states to incorporate its findings as they set education priorities in these tight budget times.

“The dire financial conditions of most states make it even more critical that states integrate their efforts into coherent and cost-effective strategies to strengthen college readiness, reduce the cost of remediation and improve rates of college completion,” the brief states.