- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 17, 2011

For many students, getting a high school diploma doesn’t mark the end of a high school education.

Three out of four graduates aren’t fully prepared for college and likely need to take at least one remedial class, according to the latest annual survey from the nonprofit testing organization ACT, which measured half of the nation’s high school seniors in English, math, reading and science proficiency.

Only 25 percent cleared all of ACT’s college preparedness benchmarks, while 75 percent likely will spend part of their freshman year brushing up on high-school-level course work. The 2011 class is best prepared for college-level English courses, with 73 percent clearing the bar in that subject. Students are most likely to need remedial classes in science and math, the report says.

Although the results are slightly better than last year — 24 percent of the 2010 graduating class met ACT’s four thresholds — the report highlights a glaring disconnect between finishing high school and being ready for the academic challenges of college.

These ACT results are another sign that states need to raise their academic standards and commit to education reforms that accelerate student achievement,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan said Tuesday.

While often frustrating for professors who are forced to spend a semester teaching concepts their students should have learned by the end of 12th grade, remedial classes also carry more serious consequences.

Students are much more likely to drop out of college if they feel that they are simply repeating high school, said Bob Wise, former West Virginia governor and president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based advocacy group.

Taxpayers also suffer, Mr. Wise said, by “paying twice” for students to take high-school-level classes again, since most remedial work doesn’t count toward college graduation.

In the 2007-08 academic year, the alliance estimates, remedial courses cost about $5.6 billion — $3.6 billion in “direct educational costs” such as taxpayer contributions to state universities and another $2 billion in lost wages, a result of giving up on higher education and missing out on the bigger paychecks that tend to come with college degrees.

“There simply has not been alignment or coordination between the K-12 system and the higher education system about what students need to know,” Mr. Wise said Tuesday.

“What we know about remedial courses is the student and the taxpayer are paying twice. You’re paying a lot of money to get back” to the academic level students should be at on the day they graduate from high school.

Even those at the top of their high school classes are often ill-prepared for college.

A 2008 report by the education advocacy group Strong American Schools found that 80 percent of college students taking remedial classes had a high school GPA of 3.0 or better.

The ACT results fuel critics’ argument that federal education policy, with its heavy focus on standardized tests, does little to advance real-world goals such as college readiness and career preparation.

“Test-driven policies which claim to be improving U.S. public schools have, in fact, failed by their own standards,” said Bob Schaeffer, public education director at the National Center for Fair and Open Testing. “Proponents of No Child Left Behind and similar state-level high-stakes testing programs … made two promises: Their strategy would boost overall academic performance and it would narrow historic achievement gaps between ethnic groups. But academic gains, as measured by ACT, are stagnant and racial gaps are increasing.”

Composite scores — the average of students’ performance on the four ACT subjects, measured on a scale of 1 to 36 — differ greatly among ethnic groups. White students had an average score of 22.4, compared with 17 for black students and 18.7 for Hispanics.

Scores also vary greatly by state. Massachusetts students had the highest average at 24.2, followed by New Hampshire at 23.7 and New York, Maine and Rhode Island all at 23 or better. Mississippi came in last with an average composite score of 18.7, according to the report.

The District of Columbia came in at 20, while Virginia and Maryland students averaged 22.3 and 22.1, respectively.

• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at bwolfgang@washingtontimes.com.

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