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Stephanie Lewis and one of her students both cried when he graduated in the spring from South Pittsburg High School in Tennessee, where she teaches English.
He’d done something she admits she wasn’t sure he could: finish high school fully prepared to go right to college.
That’s a feat a surprising number of high school graduates fail to accomplish. Half a million, or about one in four, show up on campuses each fall not ready to take college courses in math or English, according to the advocacy organization Education Reform Now. In Tennessee, only 17 percent of public high school students score at college-ready levels in English, math, reading, and science on standardized tests.
It’s a little-noticed problem that forces these students to relearn material they should have already known, discouraging huge numbers of them from ultimately getting their degrees and costing the nation, by various estimates, between $1.5 billion and $7 billion a year.
But the idea of solving it in high school is as rare as it is seemingly obvious.
“This is how it should be done,” said Alexandra Logue, executive vice chancellor and university provost for the City University of New York, or CUNY, system. “It is, however, more complicated than it sounds. You have to have everyone agreeing on what the standards are. And there are timing issues. When do you find out the student needs this, and how does that connect with when you provide the support?”
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High schools in many parts of the country are judged on the proportion of their students who graduate, whether or not those students are ready for college. Surprisingly, scoring “proficient” on state-mandated standardized tests required to receive high school diplomas, also does not necessarily mean that students are prepared for college-level work.
Public colleges and universities, meanwhile, have historically been funded based on how many students they enroll, not how many actually receive degrees. And there’s little communication between high school teachers and university faculty about what students bound for college ought to know. Even though the Common Core initiative to set consistent standards in schools nationwide has been promoted as a path to better preparing students for college and careers, for example, many higher education faculty say no one ever asked them what that means.
“The teachers in K-12 don’t even always talk to each other,” never mind to the faculties of colleges and universities their students go on to attend, said Lewis. “It shouldn’t be that difficult, but we all have our areas on which we’re graded, and a lot of teachers aren’t going to jeopardize that and take a chance on trying something different.”
Now a handful of high schools like hers are trying something different, in an even smaller handful of states, including Indiana, Tennessee and Colorado: They’re identifying students in their junior years or earlier who aren’t yet ready for college math or English and trying to bring them up to speed before they leave.
In each of those states, the percentage of students who show up at college unprepared and need so-called remedial courses has declined, in some cases dramatically. An analysis of data obtained by The Hechinger Report finds that, from 2011 to 2014, the proportion of high school graduates arriving at Tennessee community colleges in need of remedial instruction fell from 69 percent to 59 percent while the percentage of students in Indiana landing at all public universities and colleges unprepared for college-level work dropped from 31 to 18, and in Colorado from 41 to 34.
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The idea is getting a push from new funding policies that reward public colleges and universities based not on their enrollment, but on their students’ ultimate success. That’s because students who need remedial courses at community colleges are 12 percent more likely — and, at four-year universities, 74 percent more likely — to drop out, Education Reform Now reports. Those who do finish take, on average, six months and 11 months longer than their classmates, respectively, to do it. And their educations cost them an average of from $3,000 to $12,000 more than if they’d arrived ready for college-level work.
“Everything comes down to two things: politics and money,” said Danny Wilson, South Pittsburg’s principal. “The fact that the funding for postsecondary education in the state of Tennessee changed to where they’ve got some accountability for graduating people on time, obviously that changed the way the colleges were looking at it.”
Wilson’s high school accomplished something almost unheard of this spring: Every single one of the students who graduated — 64 percent of them considered economically disadvantaged and 15 percent racial minorities, the most recent available statistics show — were ready for college courses in reading, writing and math, according to the test used to measure that.
In Tennessee, that test is the ACT, and students take it in their junior years. At South Pittsburg and about 240 other high schools that are part of what’s called the Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support, or SAILS, program, those whose test results fall below the college-readiness cutoff score of 19 in math take remedial courses when they’re seniors.
SAILS courses are designed by college faculty in collaboration with high school teachers and are provided in person and online. In the academic year just ended, five high schools including South Pittsburg added English and reading, for which the cutoff score is also 19; the English component will be expanded to 25 schools this year.
Related: Many who pass state high school graduation tests show up to college unprepared
The additional work is layered on top of math and English courses seniors have to take anyway, and Lewis and her fellow teachers motivate their students by appealing to their competitive natures, she said. Statewide, SAILS officials said, 92 percent of the students in the SAILS math program and 97 percent in English successfully complete it.
“I told them, ‘You are one of five schools in the state that’s doing this,’” Lewis said. “That got the competition going in our kids.”
So did knowing that they could succeed at college-level work, said Wilson, South Pittsburg’s principal. “It changes kids’ outlooks,” he said.
The fact that they’d eventually spend less for college by getting remedial courses out of the way in high school also wasn’t lost on them, said Paola De La Torre Macias, a student who graduated from Aurora Central High School in Colorado, which offers a similar remediation program.
“A lot of us can’t really afford to pay those costs in college, so the fact that they were taken care of in high school helped a lot,” said Macias, who is attending community college this fall and hopes for a career as a history teacher.
“We won’t have to take remedial classes again,” said her classmate Brian Torales, who plans to become a police officer. “At this point, I’m ready to go in without paying the extra money I would have had to pay in college.”
Added their advisor, Dante Bills: “Up front the students kind of are, for lack of a better word, clueless about the benefits of the remediation. But once they get to college they realize how far ahead they are.”
Related: In college remedial classes, unprepared students get the least-trained teachers
The partnership in Tennessee between high school teachers and the community college faculty who represented higher education started slightly awkwardly over boxed lunches and pasta salad in an executive conference room called the River Room at Chattanooga State Community College, several who were there remember. But over 10 meetings and four months of planning, longstanding barriers began to come down.
Angry and embarrassed by the fact that so many high school students aren’t prepared for college, “A lot of people want to assign blame, that this is the fault of K-12. And K-12 says, ‘Well, higher ed isn’t sending us the teachers we need to teach the content,” said Victoria Harpool, assistant executive director for academic affairs for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission and coordinator of the SAILS program. “We don’t care whose fault it is. The reality is that it’s happening and we’ve got to figure out a way to address it.”
Elsewhere, there remains resistance from both sides. When CUNY tried to help New York City’s high schools better prepare their students for college, Logue recalled, they were stymied by the sheer number of schools and by university faculty who prefer to set their own standards for the students they accept into their courses.
But the problem remains. Only about 40 percent of New York State ninth-graders go directly from high school to college, only 30 percent manage to stay in college past their freshman year, and fewer than 19 percent get degrees within six years, the U.S. Department of Education reports, based on recent performance.
Students whose own parents didn’t go to college tend to be among the least-prepared, according to the testing company ACT. Fewer than one in 10 are college-ready. But students from all backgrounds and income levels end up having to take remedial courses once they get to college, Education Reform Now found, and since middle- and upper-income students tend to go to higher-priced institutions, it costs them the most.
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There have been other efforts to address the college-readiness problem in high schools.
A federal program called Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs, or GEAR UP, supports smaller-scale projects to do this as early as middle school in Arizona, Idaho, Kentucky, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin and Wyoming.
The State University of New York System, which spends $70 million a year on remedial education, is experimenting with a test of college readiness, for 10th- and 11th-graders, with the intention of catching those who aren’t on track for college and intervening to make sure they are.
“I absolutely think everyone should be doing this,” said Casey Sacks, project manager at the Colorado Community College System. “We know it’s making a difference.”
Including for that student who, with Lewis, choked up when he graduated high school in the spring.
Without the extra help, said Lewis, “he would have struggled, and the buy-in wouldn’t have been there.”
But with the prospect that he’d be among the students actually ready to start college, she said, he would stay in her classroom working even after class was over.
“He was just determined that he was going to get this done.”
Additional reporting by Sarah Butrymowicz.
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. It is part of a series of reports about making students ready for college, prepared in collaboration with APM Reports, the non-partisan, independent investigative and documentary journalism unit of American Public Media. Hear more here.
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