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Who's Responsible? Taking Sides on Remedial Classes

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Wendy Duggan was the salutatorian of her high school, but she found herself struggling during her first semester at the University of Missouri at Kansas City.

"When it came to test time, I thought I knew a lot of stuff in the book, but it turned out I was concentrating on the wrong things," she said.

This spring Ms. Duggan is taking a supplemental-instruction course in Western civilization. The class has far fewer students than a traditional lecture class, and Ms. Duggan has more opportunities to ask questions and get help improving her note-taking and time-management skills.

While the extra help has proved a lifesaver for Ms. Duggan, such remedial courses are at the center of a growing debate. Some policymakers are questioning whether colleges should have to make up for the shortfalls of K-12 schools, as more and more freshmen arrive unprepared for college-level coursework.

States Weighing Changes

No sector of higher education has been immune--nearly 90 percent of four-year colleges offered remedial instruction in the 1993-94 academic year, up from 81.4 percent eight years earlier.

Even the California State University system, which admits only the top one-third of the state's high school graduates, recently reported that nearly half of entering students were not ready to take college-level English and mathematics. Its board of trustees has called for a review of the university's remedial system to decide how to limit the need for remedial courses.

The rising need for remedial coursework in college has touched off a debate about how to balance concern for insuring access to higher education with the desire to uphold high academic standards.

Nearly one-third of the nation's college freshmen took a remedial course in 1989, the most recent figure available from the National Center for Education Statistics.

A 1991 study of 15 Southeastern states reported that remedial enrollment at most public and private institutions has increased since 1984. And several experts say the same is true nationally, however there is little data available on remediation because many institutions only recently began to track enrollment in such courses.

Proposals to move remedial classes to community colleges have emerged in at least a dozen states in recent years, one expert said. And in Florida, legislators recently considered a measure that would have allowed fines for school districts whose graduates arrived at college unprepared.

"I think the biggest issue is responsibility," said Christopher A. Lowe, the student member of California State's board of trustees. "Whose responsibility has it become to teach precollegiate education? Is it K-12, community college, or is it four-year colleges?

'Warmed Over' Material?

In his 1994 book City on a Hill, a study of the City College of New York, James Traub describes an exam offered in a remedial basic-skills class. Students were asked to define 20 root words, use them to define unfamiliar words, and rearrange a series of scrambled paragraphs into a logical order. Of the 23 students who took the test, 16 scored below 70 and four scored below 50 on a 100-point scale.

While the quality of public K-12 schools came under fire after the publication in 1983 of the highly critical report A Nation at Risk, colleges and universities have only recently begun to feel the heat. The Wingspread Group on Higher Education, a foundation-backed panel, last year issued a report that cited as evidence of higher education's failures the findings of the 1993 National Adult Literacy Survey. The survey found, for example, that 56.3 percent of American-born college graduates could not consistently perform such simple tasks as figuring change for purchases.

"It is hard not to conclude that too much undergraduate education is little more than secondary school material warmed over and reoffered at much higher expense," the report said, "but not at correspondingly higher level of effectiveness."

Fla. Spending $50 Million

For more than a century, students have arrived at universities unprepared for college work. And American colleges and universities have operated remedial programs for those students since the 1880's, according a 1991 N.C.E.S. report. In 1894, for example, 40 percent of entering college students took preparatory classes, but most were young teenagers with fewer years of schooling than modern-day high school graduates.

In the 1970's, remedial classes received renewed attention as high school achievement levels declined and more colleges adopted open-admissions policies.

The issue is back in the spotlight, and Edward Morante, an administrator at the College of the Desert, a community college in Palm Desert, Calif., offered a one-word explanation: "Money."

Public colleges in many states are competing with criminal-justice systems, health care, and K-12 education for funding. Many are scrutinizing their budgets for programs to cut, and remedial education is an appealing target.

In Florida, which spends about $50 million a year on college remedial-education programs, the House last month took up a proposal to overhaul such programs.

The bill, which has moved to the Senate, would force students to foot the bill for the cost of remedial courses--typically three to four times more per credit than other classes--and charge even higher fees for remedial classes students have taken more than twice.

And while the House scrapped a part of the bill that would have allowed fines of school districts whose graduates arrived unprepared, some observers said it is likely to be resurrected as disgruntled legislators search for ways to hold K-12 schools accountable.

Some See Paradox

The increasing need for remediation--given apparent advances in high school achievement--has perplexed some experts.

"All of the indicators we've seen in terms of high school performance are improving at the same time as the indicators for remediation seem to be worsening," said Joni Finney, the associate director of the California Higher Education Policy Center. One-third of California high school students now complete a state-recommended college-preparatory curriculum, up from one-fourth six years ago. And even with more California students taking the S.A.T., the average math score in the state has remained constant at 484 since 1989. Yet at the same time, the percentage of freshmen considered ready for college-level math has dropped from 71 percent to 52.8 percent.

Such inconsistency, Ms. Finney said, could be explained by the fact that not every campus in the system sets the same passing score for placement tests, and passing scores may vary from year to year within the same institutions. "As a result," she said, "the percentage of students needing remediation may rise and fall according to budget realities on a particular campus."

Peter Hoff, the senior vice chancellor for academic affairs at California State, had a good-news explanation: Two years ago the university raised its entrance standards, and high schools are just beginning to catch up. Students are required to take three years of math--algebra, geometry, and intermediate algebra--instead of just two, and the placement test is correspondingly more difficult, he said.

In addition, an increasing percentage of students are nontraditional--older adults either taking their first college courses or returning to college--which mutes the effect of more recent changes in precollegiate education.

At City College in New York, where three-quarters of the students need remediation, only 3 percent of the students who matriculated in 1984 graduated in 1988, Mr. Traub said in City on a Hill. Eight years later, only 28 percent had completed their degrees. Nationally, about 81 percent of students graduate from four-year colleges within six years.

Stuck Forever?

Meanwhile, the transfer rate from two- to four-year colleges has declined significantly over the past two decades, according to Hunter R. Boyland, the director of the National Center for Developmental Education at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C. Among unprepared minority students who say they intend to transfer from a community college to a four-year university, only 10 percent even earn a two-year associate's degree, he said.

Such figures have prompted Kati Haycock, the director of the Washington-based Education Trust at the American Association for Higher Education, and others to question whether the "open door" to higher education is really a fraud.

Ms. Haycock called remedial education a "hideous bog" from which few emerge with a college degree. "States are paying the price--or sometimes three times the price--for the same learning, and it never seems to take."

Looking at Remediation

The Southern Regional Education Board is one of the few education organizations to closely examine remediation.

"It's an issue that higher-ed folks don't want to look at because it usually does not reflect very positively on what they're doing," said Ansley Abraham, the director of the doctoral scholars' program at the S.R.E.B., a nonprofit, Atlanta-based group that advises and provides information to 15 Southeastern states on education policy.

Mr. Abraham said recent proposals to abolish remedial education or move it to community colleges may be both unrealistic and misguided.

"Everyone's data say one-third to one-half of all first-time, full-time freshman need remediation in either reading, writing, or math," he said. "I don't know any institution in this country that could afford to lop off a third of its freshman class."

What would happen if remedial programs were scrapped, he said, is that colleges would admit the same students, and professors would be forced to teach classes with a much wider range of abilities represented but without any resources for students needing extra help. This in turn would lower the quality of education offered to the entire student body, he said.

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