Plan would redirect freshmen in need of remedial work to community college
By MATTHEW TRESAUGUE | Houston Chronicle
December 10, 2007
CORRECTION: A proposal before the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board would not require high school graduates who are unprepared for university-level work to attend community colleges. A description of the proposal in a story on Page A1 Monday was unclear. Correction published 12/11/07.
AUSTIN - For the first time, Texas is making elaborate plans to reduce the embarrassingly high number of freshmen who arrive at the state's colleges and universities needing remedial work.
A 104-page proposal, which is scheduled to come before the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board next month, outlines what students should learn before enrolling at one of the state's public universities. Those who do not meet the standards will be directed to community colleges (SEE CORRECTION), where they can get extra help at a lower cost to themselves and the state.
As it stands, more than half the entering freshmen at Texas colleges and universities need remedial classes, which don't count toward a degree. Educators are optimistic the collaborative effort ultimately will ensure more students earn bachelor's degrees, and in less time.
"This would be the Texas equivalent of putting a man on the moon," said Raymund Paredes, the state's higher education commissioner.
The dismaying lack of preparation prompted the state Legislature to order the new standards during a special session in 2006. Since then, teams of high school teachers, university professors and education experts have worked to draft the sweeping proposal, which defines necessary skills to do college-level work in English, math, science and the social sciences.
Still, the plan has exposed fissures over how much high school graduates should be expected to know, based on comments submitted to the coordinating board.
One high school teacher said the proposed standards are so high that graduates should get a Ph.D. with their diplomas. A university professor said, however, that students should master the proposed set of skills by the eighth grade.
Some educators explained the divide as one of expectations. For years, the nation's high schools pushed most students toward graduation, not college. Though state law requires students to take certain classes to graduate, the requirements don't necessarily prepare them for higher education.
"Being college-eligible doesn't mean you're college-ready," said Paula Roe, scholarship programs coordinator for Project GRAD, a nonprofit school reform group that works with about 5,000 Houston students.
She considers the proposed standards "a good beginning" toward preparing more students for college.
"We've lost sight of what is acceptable," Paredes said. "Readiness is about rigor. You can require schools to teach Faulkner and Hemingway, but the question is: What do you expect students to say about those works?"
What they should know
Under the proposed standards, students would be expected to understand such subjects as quadratic equations, the laws of thermodynamics and the effects of an author's choice of style and words.
The proposal does not specify whether the standards are meant to prepare students for a community college or a research institution. Paredes said he wants students prepared to attend a mid-level member of the Association of American Universities, the prestigious clique of 62 schools that includes Rice University, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas at Austin.
"If we did that," Paredes said, "every student in Texas would be prepared to succeed."
In anticipation of the new standards, Texas Southern University is taking steps to increase the number of students transferring from community colleges. TSU has a long-standing commitment to accept anyone who wants to pursue higher education, but roughly 70 percent of first-time freshmen arrive without the skills needed to do college-level work. More than half do not make it to their sophomore year.
Once the college readiness plan clears the coordinating board, the state Board of Education will consider corresponding changes in the curriculum, working backward from 12th grade to kindergarten. Those talks could lead to big debates.
Brock Gregg, director of governmental relations for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, said teachers are concerned that the state will prescribe a one-size-fits-all curriculum. "Teachers want students to have multiple pathways to college," he said. "They want access to courses that allow them to show the required skills in a different way."