MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — After Bethany Martin graduated from high school here last June, she was surprised when the local community college told her that she had to retake classes like basic composition, for no college credit. Each remedial course costs her $350, more than a week’s pay from her job at a Chick-fil-A restaurant.
Ms. Martin blames chaotic high school classes. “The kids just took over,” she recalls. But her college instructors say that even well-run high school courses often fail to teach what students need to know in college. They say that Ms. Martin’s senior English class, for instance, focused on literature, but little on writing.
Like Ms. Martin, more than a million college freshmen across the nation must take remedial courses each year, and many drop out before getting a degree. Poorly run public schools are a part of the problem, but so is a disconnect between high schools and colleges.
“We need to better align what we expect somebody to be able to do to graduate high school with what we expect them to do in college,” said Billie A. Unger, the dean at Ms. Martin’s school, Blue Ridge Community and Technical College, who oversees “developmental” classes, a nice word for remedial. “If I’m to be a pro football player, and you teach me basketball all through school, I’ll end up in developmental sports,” she said.
Now the Obama administration is pressing states to get public school and higher education authorities working together. President Obama recently set the goal of again making the United States the nation with the highest proportion of college graduates by 2020, which means a lot more students who start college will have to graduate.
So the stimulus law that Mr. Obama signed in February requires states receiving stabilization money to work to improve courses and tests so that high school graduates can succeed in college without remedial classes.
Experts called the new requirements an important shift in federal policy, which until now has focused on promoting college access and financial aid.
“This is a breakthrough, the first time we’ve had federal policies try to move the public schools and the postsecondary systems closer together by demanding preparation in high school and persistence in college,” said Michael Kirst, a Stanford University professor emeritus who has studied the proliferation of remedial courses on American campuses.
More than 60 percent of students enrolling at two-year colleges, and 20 percent to 30 percent at four-year colleges, take remedial courses, Dr. Kirst estimated, although he said flawed official record-keeping had made a precise accounting impossible.
“Right now, high schools hand students off to colleges and declare victory,” Dr. Kirst said. “They say, ‘A high percentage of our graduates went to college,’ but they don’t look at how many had to take remedial courses or never got a degree. And the colleges blame the high schools for not preparing students, but don’t work to align the courses. The two systems don’t communicate well at all.”
The disconnect between public schools and higher education came under discussion recently at Blue Ridge College, where Education Secretary Arne Duncan led a town hall-style meeting.
“When colleges say the problem is with the way kids come out of high school, and high schools say the problem is the way the kids come out of middle school, we don’t get anywhere,” Mr. Duncan said after the meeting. “We all have to hold ourselves accountable.”
Gayle Manchin, the wife of Gov. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia, a Democrat, participated in the meeting. In an interview afterward, she said she learned of the disconnect between secondary and postsecondary worlds when teaching at a state university in the last decade. Even some high school honors students failed college placement exams and were assigned to her developmental courses, she said.
“Boy, were they surprised,” Ms. Manchin said.
Steven L. Paine, the schools superintendent in West Virginia, said the state now requires three years of high school math to graduate, up from two, and has begun working with some 40 other states to develop “college and career-ready standards” for its public schools.
That effort dates to 2005, when 13 states agreed to work together to develop better definitions of what students need to know to be ready for college, more rigorous courses to teach those standards and tougher examinations to test them, said Michael Cohen, president of Achieve, a Washington-based organization that is coordinating the effort.
California has come up with an innovative early-warning system in which students take required math and English tests at the end of 11th grade, Mr. Cohen said.
“When you get the results back, you’re told, ‘Congratulations, you are ready to do college-level work,’ ” Mr. Cohen said. “The other message says, ‘The results show you’re not ready for college, but the good news is you have a whole year to get the skills you need.’ ”
California developed that system by bringing together educators from the public high school and the state university systems to work on ways to improve high school graduates’ transition to college.
Martinsburg High School, five blocks southeast of Blue Ridge College, turns out scores of graduates who end up in the college’s remedial classes. Ms. Martin, 19, works part-time at Chick-fil-A for $7.50 an hour when she is not at college. In an interview, she recalled some high school classes in which she could have learned more.
“My 10th-grade English class was out of control,” she said. “The guys would talk and shout, and the teacher wouldn’t do anything.”
A chemistry teacher, she said, spent two weeks teaching students to convert inches to centimeters.
“The third week he just stopped teaching,” she said. “Kids were sitting on the lab counters and sleeping and going out to McDonald’s.”
Other Martinsburg graduates described similar experiences.
Regina Phillips, who became the high school’s principal last summer, said she took over a school in trouble. Three English teachers and five math teachers were uncertified, she said.
“The dropout rate was below standard,” Ms. Phillips said. “In many courses, the rigor wasn’t there.”
She has hired new teachers, cracked down on tardiness and indiscipline, and is encouraging the school’s excellent music program, she said.
“Over time, we’ll be providing the colleges with the level of students they deserve,” Ms. Phillips said.