Thursday, April 1, 2010
Students playing catch-up as they hit college
12:14 AM CDT on Sunday, March 21, 2010
By HOLLY K. HACKER / The Dallas Morning News
Nelda Contreras stood at the whiteboard and wrote: I like bananas and apples.
"Does this sentence need a comma?" she asked her students.
No, they said.
Database: Search to see how many graduates need remedial classes
Graphic: College-ready or not
Next, she wrote: I like bananas apples and grapes.
"What about this sentence?"
Students learn that punctuation rule in grade school. But this is college. A few months earlier, most of these freshmen graduated from high schools in Dallas, Lewisville, Carrollton and elsewhere. They passed their TAKS exams.
Yet here they were at Brookhaven Community College in Farmers Branch taking remedial writing. Over the semester, they'd review "your" vs. "you're," how to craft a two-page essay, and other fundamentals they should have already mastered.
Each year, tens of thousands of Texas students land in this academic purgatory – no longer in high school but not ready for college. About 40 percent of recent high school graduates in the state's public universities and colleges need at least one remedial class.
Statistics show those students take longer to earn a college degree, if they do at all.
The job of remediation falls mainly to community colleges, which open their doors to all students. Texas taxpayers will spend more than $80 million this year to subsidize remedial classes that don't carry college credit.
State figures show some improvement in recent years, with more students graduating ready for college. But the problem persists.
Comparable national statistics are not available, partly because states define the need for remediation differently. But churning out high school graduates unprepared for college is a national issue.
In Washington, the Obama administration is pushing for kids to be college-ready so they don't need remediation. Nonprofit organizations that support education, such as the Gates Foundation, are pouring money into the problem. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board is funding projects to find the best ways of teaching developmental education and helping students succeed.
The problem reveals a glaring disconnect between what high schools and colleges expect of students. People also point fingers at high schools for graduating under-prepared students, at colleges for not moving more remedial students into college-level classes, and at state policies that put students in semester-long remedial courses instead of shorter, tailored instruction.
"It's really a combination of all of this together," said Diane Troyer, a former Houston-area community college president who's a senior program officer at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. "It adds up to a situation that now is getting really strong national attention. I think for the first time we really have the light shone upon this in a way that's going to make a difference."
A rude surprise
In the Dallas County Community College District, which includes Brookhaven, about 70 percent of recent high school graduates need remedial help in at least one subject – reading, writing or math. In more affluent Collin County, about 40 percent of graduates enrolled in the local community college need remediation.
The school districts that send the area's highest proportions of graduates who need extra help include Dallas, Irving, Carrollton-Farmers Branch, Cedar Hill and Lancaster.
Yet those high school graduates have passed the Texas Assessment of Knowledge and Skills. And most must take a college-prep curriculum.
"I couldn't believe it. I just thought I'd be more prepared for [college work] and obviously I wasn't," said Brookhaven student Justin Rudder, who graduated last year from Creekview High School in Carrollton and needed one semester of developmental writing.
Rudder said he wrote lots of papers his freshman and sophomore years of high school, but not many after that. Senior year was pretty much a blow off, he said.
Like most community colleges in Texas, Brookhaven offers three levels of developmental classes, 090, 091 and 093. Students must pass a test at the end of the series to move on toward earning a degree.
Instructors can find themselves with a roomful of knocked-down egos. They're not just teaching skills, they're restoring confidence levels.
"One of the reasons I teach developmental writing is to give everybody in the classroom hope that they can go on and do this, that they can succeed in college and fulfill their career goals," Contreras said.
Not all remedial college students make it to college-level work. In Texas, only 38 percent of community college students who need remediation either graduate or are still in school after three years, vs. 57 percent of college-ready students.
At Brookhaven, Nelda Contreras' developmental writing 091 class started with about 20 students. She lost two after one week and a few more mid-semester.
One of those students turned in his first essay without a single punctuation mark. Maybe he didn't take the assignment seriously, Contreras thought. "We really need to work on your sentence structure and punctuation," she told him.
His earnest response: "I'll try. I'm not really sure where that punctuation goes."
At Collin College, Math 0300 begins with grade-school math – the addition of whole numbers in columns – and concludes with the most basic algebra. "Something along the lines of 4 + x = 5," said instructor Barbara Wilson.
On a recent Wednesday, Wilson reviewed division of fractions – "Don't be shy! Flip the second fraction, then multiply!" – and moved on to percentages and decimals.
Wilson's classes include older students who haven't been in school in years. But many are recent high school graduates who struggle so much with multiplication that she encourages them to use flash cards.
Jeff Strickland, 19, didn't take math his senior year at Wylie High and "bombed" the Collin College placement test. He's OK with being in Wilson's Math 0300 class.
"It's helped me," he said. "I needed to be refreshed."
'I just want a page'
The first day of class frustrated Contreras. She felt like she was teaching high schoolers. When she called roll, they bellowed "Heeere!" and laughed. They interrupted.
She made it clear she wasn't going to waste her time if they weren't serious. After a few classes, they settled down. But sometimes she struggled to get them to take on even easy writing assignments.
"Every time I ask you to write, it's like I ask you for blood," she told one student, with a laugh. "I just want a page."
Those who make it to English 1301, the first college-level English course, will have to write four- and five-page essays. In English 1302, they'll be expected to produce even longer papers.
"Some students say they just didn't have the educational foundation with writing," Contreras said. "They'll tell me, 'I've never seen any of this. I don't understand any of this.' "
The college works to hang on to students. Brookhaven's developmental writing instructors keep strict attendance. They know who's in class, they call when students don't show up, and they have case managers help track them down.
Still, colleges in Dallas County and elsewhere lose students along the way.
In 2008, 1,000 recent high school graduates enrolled in Dallas County community colleges were found to need remedial writing at the 091 level. Only 540 took it (a marked improvement from past years). And of those, only 308 successfully completed the course (a slight improvement).
But there has been improvement overall. Consider DCCCD, where 69 percent of recent high school graduates needed remediation in 2008, down from 82 percent in 2004.
Among the theories: With the recession and rising tuition, more students are starting at community college instead of four-year universities, and those students tend to be better prepared. The state requires students to take more rigorous classes in high school.
Colleges, school systems, nonprofit groups and others across the country are seeking solutions. Many efforts target black, Hispanic and poor students because they're more likely to need extra help.
High school and college leaders say they need to keep talking to each other about what they expect of their students.
In El Paso, the colleges and schools have worked more closely. For instance, students take college placement exams while they're still in high school, so teachers can try to bring them up to speed. Officials report that while most students still need remediation, they need less of it.
Another popular idea is doing away with semester-long, comprehensive remedial classes and replacing them with a few hours of tailored instruction. If one student needs help with punctuation and another needs help organizing essays, why make both sit through the same class?
It could just keep students in college longer, DCCCD Chancellor Wright Lassiter said. "When they don't see any light at the end of the tunnel, they leave," he said.
But that approach costs a lot. Last year, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board asked lawmakers for $30 million to offer that kind of tailored instruction but received only $5 million.
Educators are also optimistic about college-readiness standards that Texas adopted in 2008. The standards spell out what students should know in math, English, social studies and science to succeed in entry-level college classes or the workforce.
'I can do it'
The 15 students who stuck with Contreras' 091 class passed. Next up: developmental writing 093. Instead of writing basic essays to describe and explain something, they'll have to write persuasive essays, which take a position and argue it convincingly.
Contreras met with each student to review the final essay and grade. She told Aida Kolenovic, a Coppell High graduate, that she passed. Kolenovic let out a whoop.
Contreras said: You've got your organization down. You've got good supporting information in your paragraphs. Just proofread more carefully and catch those stray commas and run-on sentences.
Kolenovic said she plans to take the next and final level of developmental writing next semester.
"It's going to be a tough class," Contreras said. "But what's the positive of that?"
"I can do it," Kolenovic said.
Staff writer Sam Hodges contributed to this report.