An F for preparedness

Students are graduating from high school deficient in basic study skills and in reading, writing and

Students are graduating from high school deficient in basic study skills and in reading, writing and math, say education officials, forcing them to take remedial classes in college and delaying their graduation — if they finish college at all.

Forty-four percent of the students entering the state’s two-year colleges in 2007 and 13 percent of those entering four-year colleges had to take at least one remedial class, according to the New York State Education Department.

The statistics are even higher locally. About 75 percent of enrolled Schenectady County Community College students have taken at least one remedial course, according to the college.

Education officials and students say a weak high school curriculum and lax standards result in ill-prepared students.

“You can get by by doing the minimum,” said 17-year-old Maxibell Jimenez, who graduated from George Washington High School in Manhattan and is entering the University at Albany this fall. “In my high school, you can definitely coast along. All you have to do is go to class.”

Low standards, little time

Jimenez is one of about 140 students participating in a five-week college preparation session this summer run by the university’s Educational Opportunities Program.

Students are selected for the college preparedness program if they have roughly a B average in high school,

average SAT scores between 900 and 1100 and meet certain financial criteria, according to EOP Director Maritza Martinez. The University at Albany does not have strict minimum requirements for admission, but certain majors, including business, accounting and nanotechnology require a higher grade point average.

Martinez agreed that students could have been pushed a little harder in high school in writing, thinking critically and learning how to do a comprehensive research paper, she said.

She blames grade inflation to an extent and inconsistency in standards for students who got good grades in high school still needing remedial classes.

“We know that in some cases a ‘B’ earned in one school is not equivalent to a ‘B’ earned in another school. I would venture to say that sometimes a student is just passed on. I can’t say that’s the case in all instances,” she said.

Another issue is that teachers have to focus on managing students with behavioral problems and troubles at home.

“It’s almost like they become a social worker as well. It doesn’t allow them to purely focus on the academics,” she said.

As a result of these distractions, teachers may have to speed up their teaching to get in the mandated curriculum. Therefore, they have less time to help students who are having trouble. Those students may become frustrated and bored with school and then stop attending.

Playing catch-up

During the summer program, students take classes weekdays from 9 a.m. to noon. The reading and writing classes cover grammar and reading comprehension. Math classes cover everything from basic algebra and geometry all the way up to calculus, depending on students’ needs, Martinez said.

In the afternoon, students find out what to expect at college and learn about study skills, including note-taking, textbook-reading, test-taking skills and time management.

That last skill is particularly important, Martinez said. She helps students plan their semester at a glance, so they see all the assignments they have to complete and the periods when they will be busy. Advisers meet with the students every week to make sure they stay on track.

Incoming UAlbany freshman Felix Castillo, 18, of the Bronx, who is in the program, said high school students are not emotionally ready for college work and expectations. For example, in high school, students are given multiple chances to complete their assignments.

“They’re still in that mentality that everything is done for them,” he said.

Students in UAlbany’s summer program follow a strict set of rules. They are not allowed to curse, sleep in class, miss curfew or show disrespect, according to Martinez. If they break the rules, they have to come in at 6:30 a.m. and write essays explaining why they broke the rules. Serious infractions result in expulsion from the program.

The program, which has about 620 students overall, has been successful, according to Martinez. The six-year graduation rate for EOP students who entered the University at Albany in the fall of 2004 is 68.5 percent, compared with 65 percent for the traditional students. About 56 percent of all full-time students graduate within four years.

“Even though they come in with needs, they catch up and in the end exceed,” Martinez said.

Bogging down

Many students aren’t succeeding. About 57 percent of students entering four-year colleges in 2002 graduated within six years, according to NCES. The rate is lower for minorities, including 40 percent for African-Americans and 49 percent for Hispanics.

Nationwide, students who require remedial courses are less likely to graduate. About 58 percent of students who started college in 2002 who took no remedial courses earned a bachelor’s degree within eight years, compared with only 17 percent who took remedial courses, according to NCES.

Taking a large number of remedial classes will delay a student’s ability to graduate on time. Schenectady County Community College offers six of what they call “developmental” classes in writing, reading and math. Taking all six courses, which roughly 20 to 30 percent do, would tack on about one semester to a full-time student’s program, according to John Quaintance, chairman of the department of developmental studies at SCCC.

This past fall, about 32 percent of first-time, full-time students took one or more developmental studies classes.

Consequently, graduation is pushed back for many of these students — if they complete the program at all. Only about 11 percent of students who take developmental courses graduate in three years, compared with 20 percent for all students. Although SCCC is a two-year program, the graduation rate is tracked on a three-year basis.

“We’re pretty much smack in the middle of the state average,” he said.

The graduation rate increases to 17 percent for developmental studies students who stay at SCCC five years, compared with 28 percent for all students.

Quaintance attributed the high number of students requiring remedial classes to the fact that community colleges attract students with a wide range of abilities, including people who have not been successful in high school and returning adult students. The college has an open admissions policy and will accept any student who residents in Schenectady County and graduated from high school with a local or Regents diploma within the previous year, according to its website. In addition, SCCC offers a 24-credit-hour program that allows students to simultaneously earn a general equivalence diploma and college credit.

Students must take a placement class to determine whether they need developmental courses unless they scored 75 or better on both their math and English Regents exams.

Alfredo Smalls, who recently graduated from SCCC with a degree in business administration, said he believe he was prepared for college. One issue is that in college, no one is looking over students’ shoulders.

“If I had anything to tell a kid, it would be choose your friends. Make sure you do work first. Work hard. Play later,” said Smalls, who graduated from Schenectady High School in 2003.

‘Race to the bottom’

There is a monetary cost to remediation. An estimated $1.4 billion is spent providing remedial education to college students, according to an issue brief prepared by the Alliance for Excellent Education. In addition, AEE estimated that the U.S. economy loses another $2.3 billion in potential revenue because students who need remedial classes are more likely to drop out of college and therefore have lower earnings.

New York spends an estimated $98.6 million on remediation and has another $93.5 million in lost earning power, according to the report.

Because of the economic and social costs, both college and high school officials are trying to decrease the number of remedial classes students must take.

Education officials also blame federal policy for low student achievement in college. High school graduation requirements are different across the country, and some states set the standard so it will be relatively easy to pass because they did not want to lose federal aid for being a failing school.

“Many have argued that the No Child Left Behind act kind of fueled a race to the bottom,” said Michael Yudin, deputy assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education at the U.S. Department of Education. “It was very punitive in its impact and kind of created some perverse incentives for states to create lower standards.”

Whereas the students do well on the state tests, they do poorly on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

State education officials are toughening up high school graduation requirements. Last year, then-Education Commissioner David Steiner raised the passing score for the state standardized tests for grades three through eight. He was finding that even students that were deemed proficient on the elementary tests and were going on to pass Regents exams were struggling in college.

Raising the bar

State education officials now believe that students need to score an 80 percent or better on the math Regents exam and 75 percent or better on the English Regents to be successful in college.

Although the state’s overall graduation rate last year was 73 percent, that rate would have dropped to 31 percent if the state used this new standard.

The performance of minority students is even worse. Only 13 percent of African-Americans and 15 percent of Hispanics would have graduated under this standard.

The Board of Regents is considering changes to high school graduation requirements including raising the Regents passing score, requiring students to pass a second Regents in math or creating an alternative test. New York is also among 42 states and Washington, D.C., which have adopted the Common Core Standards of what they believe students should know when they graduate from high school.

Educators are also focusing on making students successful in high school so more of them will get to college. New this summer, the University at Albany also has a three-week program called Gear Up for students who will enter ninth grade at Albany High School in the fall. The program focuses on English, math and study skills so students can be more prepared, according to Alexandra Guerrero, coordinator for the program.

Michael Moore, 14, of Albany, said he is enjoying the program.

“It’s teaching us how to plan out our time to make time for studying,” he said.

Imani Henderson, 14, said students need to shape up when they get to high school. The teachers will no longer give them a lot of chances to do their work. “It’s not a joke as it was in middle school,” she said.

Of course, a lot of being successful in college is a result of attitude, said James DiDonna of Scotia, who spent six years after high school serving in the military before entering SCCC.

“If they didn’t care in high school, they’re absolutely not going to care when they come here,” he said.

Categories: Schenectady County

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