Saturday, 2:15 PM
Thousands of Mass. high school grads need remedial college classes
By Peter Schworm, Globe Staff
Thousands of Massachusetts public high school graduates are failing placement tests in math and English when they arrive at college, forcing them to take noncredit, remedial classes and casting doubt on the MCAS exams as a measure of college readiness, according to a new state report.
The report, released jointly today by the departments of Elementary and Secondary Education and Higher Education, showed that the problem crossed socioeconomic lines, with large numbers of graduates from both urban and suburban districts unprepared for introductory college classes.
Overall, 37 percent of public high school graduates from the class of 2005 who attended a public college or university in Massachusetts enrolled in at least one remedial course in their first semester in college.
At three Boston high schools, more than 70 percent of students who entered the state's higher education system took at least one remedial class their first year. In suburban Hanover, 33 percent did, while in Lynnfield and Needham the figure was 27 percent. Remedial courses do not count toward a degree.
The report marks the first time education researchers have detailed how public high school graduates from individual school districts perform in Massachusetts public colleges. State education officials distributed the reports last week to nearly 300 high schools across the state.
"This is a statewide problem," said Linda M. Noonan, managing director of the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education, which supports tougher educational standards. "There's something systemic that we're not doing to get these kids ready to do college-level work."
The findings raise concern that the city's public schools are failing to prepare students to earn college degrees, and are worrisome because students who take remedial courses are far more likely to drop out of college, often without the skills needed to land a good job. Businesses have lobbied for education reforms to develop a more educated workforce.
Patricia F. Plummer, commissioner of the Department of Higher Education, said: “Now more than ever, post-secondary education and training is a necessity in today’s new economy. Even entry-level positions demand ever-increasing levels of skill and knowledge."
"These reports will be critical as we move toward our goal of better aligning the work of our secondary schools with that of our colleges," Paul Reville, chairman of the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education, said in a statement. "This information should prompt our secondary schools to reevaluate whether they are properly preparing their graduates for college."
The district breakdowns follow a February report that tracked the performance of graduates on placement tests statewide. That report also found that 65 percent of students enrolled in a community college took at least one developmental course, as did 22 percent of students at state colleges and 8 percent of students at state university campuses.
Overall, half of students who scored in "needs improvement" on the Grade 10 Math MCAS exam had to take remedial math in college.
Jeffrey Nellhaus, acting commissioner of the Department of Education, said he hoped the information would help high schools do a better job preparing students. Future reports will be released each spring.
"This is data we've never had before, and will be vitally important as we move into this next phase of education reform," he said. "Our graduates should enter college well prepared, not in need of remedial help. These local reports will give our schools the information they need to make sure this trend does not continue."
Educators and researchers said the study suggested that merely passing MCAS, a hurdle to high school graduation, does not guarantee college readiness.
"The dirty little secret is that MCAS doesn't test 10th grade skills, much less college skills," said Robert Gaudet, an education researcher at the University of Massachusetts's Donahue Institute. "Passing is not that hard, it's getting to proficient that's tougher."
Noonan agreed, saying that MCAS "is not a college readiness metric."
Among students who scored a "needs improvement" on the 10th-grade MCAS math test, half were forced to take developmental math classes, compared with 20 percent who scored "proficient."
Students who received special education instruction in high school, Hispanic and African-American students, and students from less-affluent backgrounds and those with limited English proficiency were more likely to enroll in remedial classes.
At Bunker Hill Community College, educators said the advent of high-stakes testing had not improved performance on college placement tests.
"I haven't seen any significant change," said Deborah Barrett, the college's coordinator of student assessment. "It's very frustrating for students. They think that they've graduated from high school, they passed the MCAS, so they're ready for college."
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