Many District 51 graduates not up to college work, report says
More local students graduated high school ill-prepared for college-level work in 2011, according to a new report from the Colorado Department of Higher Education.
More than 53 percent of School District 51 graduates in spring 2011 enrolled in college that fall. Eighty-six percent of those students chose an in-state college or university. Nearly half of those local high school graduates who went to an in-state college three months after graduation — 47.4 percent — needed at least one remedial math, reading or writing course in college, up from 43.8 percent for the District 51 Class of 2010 and 40 percent for the Class of 2009.
The state began tracking remediation rates in 2000-01 but changed its calculation method this year and provided two years’ worth of back data using the new method. 2011 was the most recent year for which data were available.
Remedial courses are the Department of Higher Education’s term for classes aimed at bringing students up to college level in math or English skills. Students opt to take the courses or are assigned to them because of a low score on the Accuplacer test, an assessment new college students have to take if they scored below 19 on the ACT math test, below 18 on the ACT English test, or below 17 on the ACT Reading test, at least at Colorado Mesa University.
In 2011-12, Colorado Mesa enrolled 40.2 percent of its first-year students from in-state high schools in remedial courses.
At Western Colorado Community College, where all applicants are accepted regardless of high school performance, the rate was a whopping 81.7 percent in 2011-12.
The university’s total remediation rate that year for in-state, first-year Colorado students was 53.3 percent, down from 53.5 percent in 2010-11 but up from 50.1 percent in 2009-10.
The Colorado Mesa system has the second-highest remediation rate in the state after Adams State University.
More students, more needs
Both Colorado Mesa and District 51 had remediation rates above the state average in 2011, which was about 40 percent for both Colorado colleges and universities and Colorado high school graduates that year.
District 51 Chief Academic Officer Bill Larsen said he’s not content with a rate higher than the state’s. He’s not shocked, either.
“It’s our goal as a district to increase the number of students going to a two-year or four-year institution,” Larsen said.
With more students, and not just the top ones, pursuing higher education, he said, “It’s not a surprise our remediation rate would go up.”
Bob Peterson, a math remediation instructor at Colorado Mesa, said students have struggled with the same math and English concepts throughout his 40 years as a teacher.
The difference now, according to his writing teacher colleague, Laura Mourning, is students who would have gone straight into a career after high school decades ago are going to college instead and sometimes they need help with those concepts before moving on.
Mourning said she doesn’t think the bar has lowered for high school or college students, just that more students now are trying to climb over that bar.
“High school is much more vigorous than when I was there,” she said.
Larsen said the district has had success preparing more students for college with expanded Advanced Placement programs at Central, Fruita Monument and Grand Junction high schools and the International Baccalaureate program at Palisade High School.
But the district has shaved the number of remedial courses it used to offer on-campus for seniors needing to catch up before college at Central and Fruita Monument combined from four a couple of years ago to two this year: one math and one reading course at Fruita Monument.
The district has faced scrutiny about expanding the amount of time and chances students have to get a concept right.
Colorado Mesa Vice President of Academic Affairs Carol Futhey said during a January CMU trustees meeting that some high school graduates don’t come to college with a proper understanding of deadlines or single chances to turn in correct homework.
“We need to work with K-12 so kids aren’t coming in thinking this is grade 13,” she said, adding, “I don’t put it all on K-12 ... they’re a piece of it.”
Larsen said rigor is still high and students have deadlines, but extra time is sometimes given so students have a chance to learn instead of getting an F.
“It’s a philosophical difference between the charge of public education and the current charge of public higher education,” he said, adding colleges and universities may feel pressure to act similarly if the state tasks them with increasing graduation rates.
Sherry Schreiner, who oversees remedial education at Colorado Mesa as director of developmental education, said she agrees with the idea of giving students extra time instead of automatically failing them.
“In K-12, teachers have an obligation to get every student through,” she said.
An 18-year-old Colorado Mesa freshman who wished to remain anonymous said he feels like his Denver-area high school prepared him for college, but he still anticipated he would have to take remedial math and reading courses.
“I wanted to take them just for practice and to get my skills up better. I was learning enough in high school but in college you have to go up, so I didn’t want to get behind,” he said.
Marcia Neal, Grand Junction’s representative on the Colorado Board of Education and a former Grand Junction High School teacher, said colleges play their part in remedial rates.
Colorado’s public colleges and universities brought in $39 million in student tuition from remedial students in 2011-12 while the state spent $19 million on remediation, according to the state Department of Higher Education.
“They’re not going to turn away a student who’s going to pay tuition, but the fact they accept them is part of the problem,” Neal said.
She doesn’t hold public education blameless, though. While communication has improved between K-12 and college educators about what high school students need to prepare for college, Neal said nothing has changed since her retirement 13 years ago when it comes to knowing if students are meeting those needs or simply passing while educators are “satisfied with averaging up the C’s.”
25 CREDITS ‘JUST NOT SUFFICIENT’
“The only requirement to graduate is number of credits, which I think is 25 in District 51,” Neal said. “To me, that’s just not sufficient. We have to have some real, hard evidence that you’ve been successful.”
Neal hopes two developments in Colorado education will foster student success and more evidence of it.
Senate Bill 191 takes effect in all schools this fall and will require all teachers to receive stricter evaluations of their effectiveness, partly based on test results from their students.
In addition, the state Board of Education is scheduled next month to adopt new, statewide graduation requirements that will go into effect with fall 2014 ninth-graders.
Neal said draft requirements that seniors in 2017-18 and beyond hit a particular score on ACT, SAT, state testing or another exam in order to graduate would help students and their future colleges know how prepared they are for postsecondary work.
Classes consolidating, fine-tuning
One of the reasons Adams and Colorado Mesa lead the remedial pack is they both have community college systems that take in all applicants.
Schreiner said CMU wants to see students at the two-year and four-year level get through remedial courses and into regular college courses where they can begin earning credit.
To help achieve that goal, she and her staff go over remedial data each semester to try to refine the program to fit student differences.
Students can take math in a classroom setting or in a computer lab where they can ask for teacher help if they get stuck, and remedial reading and writing courses will be blended into one course beginning this summer.
The university began allowing students to attach a remedial reading lab onto a regular 100-level course this year and did away with the lowest of three levels of remedial courses in 2012.
CMU will get rid of the midlevel remedial option this fall, leaving just one level for math and English. Students who still need help beyond the remaining remedial level can seek tutoring.
Math teacher Peterson said students come to him from all ability levels. Some aren’t great test-takers so they didn’t do well on the Accuplacer exam.
Others are vocational students who would have been able to go directly into a service job in years past but now need to pass general education courses as well as classes in their field.
Many need to overcome a fear of a subject they have never been comfortable tackling.
“It’s a lot like cheerleading. You have to pump them up. They don’t think they can do it,” Peterson said.
A 33-year-old CMU remedial math student who wished to remain anonymous said she hated math her entire life. She took one beginning-level math course without trouble at the university but was completely lost in the next math class, so her teacher suggested she take a remedial class.
Having an attentive teacher has helped her tackle once-foreign concepts, she said.
“This experience was exactly what I needed. Now it’s my favorite class. It’s the first homework I do at night,” she said.
Another student, 21-year-old freshman Gabriel Van der Merwe, performed well in high school in his home of South Africa.
But as a native Afrikaans-speaker, he decided to take remedial math and reading to help him catch up on concepts in his second language.
“If I think back from the first day to now, it’s probably a 60 percent increase” in proficiency, he said.