High schools failing college students

FALLING SHORT: PROBLEMS IN TEXAS HIGHER EDUCATION

Half must take remedial classes in Texas colleges, and even with help, only a fraction of them succeed

By Ralph K.M. Haurwitz, Laura Heinauer
Austin American-Statesman
Sunday, May 15, 2005

Third in an occasional series

It's a Friday morning, and students are filing into Room 122 at the Austin Community College campus on Rio Grande Street. Some of them have tattoos. All of them carry backpacks. It's an unremarkable scene except for one thing:

These college students are here to learn high school math. On this day, instructor Don Lavigne will explain how to calculate the volume of a cylinder. For Corey Ferguson, one of the students, mastering the basics of algebra and geometry is at once satisfying and a tad embarrassing.

"I hate carrying this book around," Ferguson said. " I always try to make sure the cover is hidden, but sometimes you get some 16-year-old kid who sees it, and I just want to be, like, 'Yeah, I don't know fractions, dude.' "

He's not alone in needing remedial education, also known as developmental education.

Half of the students entering public colleges and universities in the state are ill-prepared for college-level work in math, reading or writing and must therefore take at least one remedial course, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. Ninety percent of the students in higher education in Texas attend public universities and community colleges.

Underpreparation for college is a problem throughout the nation, but Texas faces a special challenge because of its shifting demographics.

Texas' challenges

College enrollment is rising in Texas among those who historically have not attended in great numbers and who often have weaker academic backgrounds, including Hispanics, blacks and low-income students. Even more such students — especially Hispanics, the fastest-growing population group in the state — will have to enroll if Texas hopes to educate its citizens on a par with other states.

And so, the demand for remedial education is likely to increase.

But the harsh reality is that academic success eludes most students taking such courses. Just 16 percent of underprepared students in Texas earn a certificate, a two-year degree or a four-year degree within six years of enrolling, compared with 47 percent of college-ready students.

Improving the success rates for developmental education will take time, money and a multifaceted approach. Among other things, scholars recommend more tutoring by faculty members and fellow students, creation of formal study groups, more frequent academic advising sessions, better preparation in middle school and high school, and intensive study sessions between high school and college to shore up areas of weakness.

Going the wrong way

In some ways, Texas is heading in the wrong direction. A survey by the coordinating board found that colleges have reduced the frequency and amount of advising they provide in recent years. In 2003, the state Legislature cut the two-year budget for developmental education by $12 million, to $173 million, even as the demand for such education was increasing. Lawmakers have not finalized a budget for the next two years, but developmental education is expected to remain flat or rise modestly.

Perhaps the most urgent need is for wider recognition of the problem, especially among college officials. The coordinating board found that a third of public colleges listed developmental education as a minor or nonexistent part of their strategic plans.

Raymund Paredes, the commissioner of higher education, says a survival-of-the-fittest approach to developmental education students is simply unacceptable.

"We can't practice what constitutes a kind of academic Darwinism," Paredes said. "We've got to help these students. We should make a commitment as educators that we are going to do everything we can to ensure the academic success of the students we admit. Right now, we're not anywhere close to that."

Paredes plans to convene a summit of sorts on developmental education in the fall, to explain the urgency to college presidents and other campus officials.

ACC officials say developmental education is a high priority on their campuses. About 8,000 of the nearly 30,000 students are involved in remedial studies. One sign of ACC's focus on the developmental mission: Sixty-eight percent of entering students who need remedial courses return the following semester, compared with 65 percent of students who did not receive remediation.

Study groups needed

On the other hand, ACC falls short in using study groups led by a student who has already taken the course to reinforce what students are learning in class. That would be a worthwhile initiative, said Kathleen Christensen, ACC's associate vice president of student services and retention, but study group leaders must be paid, and there isn't money in the budget to do so.

It's not unusual at ACC for a remedial math class to start out with 18 students and wind up with a dozen, the rest having dropped out because of difficulty with the material, distractions at home or pressures resulting from full- or part-time employment. Some students must take a remedial course two or even three times before they pas — a heavy toll in time, money and frustration. Such courses do not count toward a two-year or four-year degree.

"A lot of students have a bitter taste in their mouth about developmental education to start with," Lavigne said. "You take a test, you're told you have to go to basic math — how is that going to make you feel?"

On the recent Friday, five of the original 18 students showed up on time for his class. A few more drifted in as Lavigne reviewed formulas for measuring the volume of boxes, cylinders and spheres. His low-key manner and patient explanations seemed to put students at ease.

"I always thought math was interesting, but I didn't understand it," said Liz Ruggles, a journalism major. "Now I'm getting it."

Anne Praderas, who teaches developmental math at ACC's Northridge campus, said her students often need guidance to improve their study skills.

"Teaching this, it's not so much that you have to be a brilliant mathematician," Praderas said. "You need to be a good teacher. You have to be able to communicate clearly. You have to explain things three different ways."

Students lack skills

In many cases, students taking remedial courses don't lack ability; they lack skills. Sometimes, they've simply forgotten material they learned years ago.

June Reynolds, 40, who is working on an accounting degree, signed up for college-level business math but realized on the first day of class that she wasn't prepared for it. So she switched to a developmental course in elementary algebra.

"I haven't had algebra since high school," Reynolds said. "Luckily, I have an A in the course."

Others have only recently graduated from high school. Alli Crews, who is pursuing a degree in sociology, said math is something she has struggled with since grade school. She said she has probably been taught the same basic principles of algebra six times, but they never seemed to stick. When she found out she would have to take remedial math in college, she was not surprised.

"In the beginning I felt like, 'God, I'm so stupid. I should know this at this point in my life, and I just suck at it,' " she said. "Now I'm starting to figure out that I just wasn't taught right."

Debbie Graves Ratcliffe, a spokeswoman for the Texas Education Agency, acknowledged that the coordinating board's findings about the number of students in need of remedial education were troubling, especially because many of these students are just coming out of high school.

Ratcliffe said educators are aware that some classes, such as introductory algebra, are difficult for many students. Increasing class times for algebra and turning it into a two-year course haven't seemed to help, she said. It's too early to tell if the newest strategy — to start teaching basic principles of algebra while students are in elementary school — will succeed.

Several other changes aimed at improving high school education are just beginning. This year's senior class is the first that had to pass the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills test in order to receive diplomas. Those results, Ratcliffe said, should better help educators identify problem areas and develop strategies for improvement.

High school tougher

The state's course requirements for high school students also are beginning to get tougher. This year's high school freshman were the first in Texas who will be required to take an advanced algebra course and an upper-level physics course to graduate.

"After several years of improvement at the lower grade levels, I think the focus is finally beginning to shift to the upper grades," Ratcliffe said, noting how in the last several months, President Bush and U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings have advocated expanding the accountability changes in the No Child Left Behind Act to the nation's high schools.

It's a cause championed in the private sector as well. Microsoft co-founder and chairman Bill Gates, who has contributed more than $2 billion to education since 1999, made headlines earlier this year when he said he was "appalled" by the state of high schools in the country.

Gates' focus is on creating small "learning communities" in high schools to promote stronger relationships between students and teachers.

In Texas, Gates' foundation helped pay for a multimillion-dollar high school redesign and restructuring program launched this year at numerous high schools rated academically unacceptable, including Johnston in the Austin school district.

"Most high schools in Texas won't graduate a single student who will get an engineering degree in a decade," said Geoffrey Orsak, dean of engineering at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "People who walk the halls of the state Capitol don't realize how broadly uneducated the state is.

"Neither higher education nor public education wants to take ownership of these students who have graduated from high school but are not prepared for college. Both need to take ownership."

rhaurwitz@statesman.com; 445-3604

lheinauer@statesman.com; 445-3694