Feb 192012
Authors: Colleen Canty

One word echoes particularly loud and sinister in the heads of high school students preparing to graduate and enroll in college: remediation.

Last year 28.6 percent of students were considered unprepared for college.

But, according to the most recent annual remediation report released by the Colorado Commission on Higher Education, 31.8 percent of Colorado high school graduates are taking remedial courses at community colleges instead of attending a university.

This deterioration of college preparedness may only be a natural flux in this year’s data, said Alan Lamborn, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Affairs at Colorado State University, but the numbers do highlight an issue becoming more relevant and hotly debated in the world of education today.

According to Lamborn, remediation is “at the center of some of the most creative national energy and focus about educational policy of this entire decade.” He believes the problem of remediation is not that public education and high school students’ performance is deteriorating, but because the world is rapidly changing.

Dated and potentially irrelevant curricula in schools may no longer suffice; herein lies the significance of the problem.

“The problem of remediation has become more acute, not so much because more people are needing it, but more because the needs of job markets and the global work force have changed so much,” Lamborn said. “The number of jobs you can find –– the living you can earn –– with foundational deficiencies has gone down.”

External factors like changing workforce needs, socioeconomic trends, rural isolation and the increasing numbers of students speaking English as a second language are being taken into account when discerning meaning from the recent report. In school districts with higher percentages of lower income families, poverty and students speaking English as a second language, remediation has spiked.

“Our campus in Westminster has seen a higher remediation rate, which actually gets to the core of the problem,” said Andy Dorsey, president of Front Range Community College (FRCC). “These rates track closely with socioeconomic trends in certain school districts; areas with more families in poverty have higher remediation rates. The problem goes deeper than school districts –– it goes back to lack of resources and increased stresses on the family influencing student achievement.”

Because the problem of remediation is intricately layered and complex, the remedy may require collaborative efforts on behalf of school districts, as well as significant external support.

One effort within the grasp of school districts is the Common Core State Standard Initiative. Primed for implementation in the year 2015, according to Lamborn, the initiative will travel the length of the K-12 pipeline, redesigning curricula and implementing an integrated set of learning objectives to “radically reduce or eliminate the need for remediation in arithmetic and communication (reading and writing),” Lamborn said.

The plan will beg serious commitment of school districts if it is to be successful in alleviating remediation problems.

“The challenge is going to be political and the question at hand is how are we going to phase this in over time,” Lamborn said. “You can’t throw the switch and expect to be where you want to be within the first year this comes online.”

“The first students to graduate will have been in the enriched curriculum only a few years, so if they oversell what they can accomplish in the first year, students will look at what they actually did accomplish and say ‘well, that didn’t work,’” he said. “If they create a set of standards of where they hope to be after many years, inadequate graduates next year will think they failed. That’s going to be really hard, but if the initiative succeeds, it will transform what we see as incoming college freshmen.”

To gauge students’ readiness for post-secondary education, Lamborn said the initiative will introduce “high-stakes tests” at the end of high school students’ junior years, in which their competencies in the areas of reading, writing and mathematics will be evaluated.

These results will flag certain students who need additional support in deficient areas, thereby helping teachers evaluate how to bring them up to speed before entering senior year and eliminating the need for remediation after graduation.

“These assessments used will be significant, because what gets measured gets done,” said Jerry Wilson, superintendent of Poudre School District (PSD).

What may be out of the school districts’ hands, however, is the money and funding playing a large part in the initiative’s success.

“Lack of general resources and a downturn in the economy has impacted the state’s ability to re-engineer assessments, so what is happening financially on the federal government level is interesting to us right now,” Wilson said.

While the data released by the report is only “a snapshot of what we know about students’ college preparedness,” according to Wilson, and may not be “part of a long-term trend,” according to Dorsey, educational institutions are aware of the potential remediation problem and are consciously working with one another to reduce it.

PSD, FRCC and CSU are continuing to co-develop communication and support systems to better communicate academic expectations to students and are striving to dig for the true root of graduate deficiencies on a student-by-student basis.

The problem may be mounting and the solution obscured, but students in need of remediation are not being overlooked.

“We have to ask people to be committed to a high-stakes venture that is a long, multi-year enterprise,” Lamborn said. “Getting people to have the determination and patience to do something that big that will take that long to be successful will be difficult. But when I look at what the initiative hopes to achieve, I get really excited.”

Collegian writer Colleen Canty can be reached at news@collegian.com.

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