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Mass. Plan Would Make Districts Pay for Remediation

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The Massachusetts board of higher education wants state districts to foot the bill when their graduates take college remedial courses to review material they should have learned in high school.

State lawmakers will soon consider the board's proposal to hold districts accountable for the expense of providing remedial reading, writing, and mathematics courses to students attending public colleges and universities.

If a district superintendent "gets an invoice for $14,000 from the university system for the cost of these classes, that's going to raise some eyebrows," board Chairman James Carlin said. He added that the policy would give districts an extra incentive to provide students with a strong background in the basics.

Troubled by the idea of paying for the same class twice, many states are trying to tighten the belt on their postsecondary remedial offerings by capping enrollment in such courses at public universities or confining the availability of remedial education to community colleges.

The hard-line approach taken by the Massachusetts higher education board is similar to a proposal that has failed in the Georgia legislature for the past three years.

"In the same way that responsibility for the students who need remedial education is tossed back and forth, so are the costs," said Charles Lenth, the director of policy studies for higher education at the Denver-based Education Commission of the States.

Who's To Blame?

Opponents of the Massachusetts and Georgia proposals say nothing will be accomplished by penalizing districts when college students need help with the basics. Colleges that admit unprepared students, they say, are equally to blame.

"Until colleges and universities clean up their acts, it doesn't make sense to bill the school system," said Massachusetts Rep. Harold M. Lane Jr. The Democrat co-chairs the legislature's joint education committee.

One University of Massachusetts official also questions the assumption that remedial courses deplete public resources. Because those courses are often taught by part-time instructors or teaching assistants rather than higher-paid professors, universities can actually make a profit on them, said John Hoey, the director of communications for the University of Massachusetts system.

The proposal from the Massachusetts board comes less than a year after its earlier mandate that the state's four-year colleges cap enrollment in developmental reading, writing, and math courses to no more than 10 percent of a freshman class. The board hopes to further limit remedial enrollment to 5 percent of a freshman class by next September.

Twenty-two percent of recently graduated freshmen at the University of Massachusetts enrolled in at least one remedial course in 1995, according to a report released in November.

Mr. Lane said some of those students did not meet the basic admissions standards outlined by the university. If a particular district consistently graduates students who need to take remedial courses at state colleges, "something should be done," Mr. Lane said. "But some of this problem," he said, "is that colleges are accepting students under standards that are less than the ones they've set up."

Colleges have strengthened entrance requirements to help weed out unprepared students, but grade inflation can make it difficult to judge student competency, Mr. Carlin of the higher education board said.

"There's been so damn much grade inflation, the colleges don't know what they've got until they get it," he asserted.

Fourth Try

In Georgia, Rep. Charlie Smith Jr. has asked his fellow lawmakers to consider a bill that would hold school systems financially responsible when students who graduate with college-preparatory diplomas need to take remedial courses in college.

This is Mr. Smith's fourth attempt to win support for the measure, which he says would cost Georgia districts a total of $5 million.

Though the Democratic legislator doesn't expect his proposal to pass this year, he plans to continue pushing the bill until districts agree to shoulder some of the financial burden of postsecondary remedial classes.

"You've got no excuse for giving a kid a college-prep seal on his diploma if he's not ready," Mr. Smith said. He noted that 30 percent of Georgia students who graduated with college-preparatory diplomas in 1995 took remedial courses in college.

One Massachusetts superintendent said billing districts when their graduates require remedial review would send a mixed message to administrators. As state and national leaders encourage districts to direct more students toward postsecondary education, it would be counterproductive to penalize them if students test into remedial courses, argued James Garvey, the superintendent of the 23,000-student Worcester schools.

"I thought the goal was to get into the mind-set that education is a lifelong goal," Mr. Garvey said. "We've got to stop pointing fingers at each other."

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