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Education: Bridging ‘the gap’

Special report, Part 5: High school grad requirements don’t meet college entry-level expectations

Posted: November 27, 2010 9:19 p.m.
Updated: November 28, 2010 4:30 a.m.
High school educators hope that by working more closely with college administrators and encouraging students to take nonmandatory math and English courses, districts will be able to close the gap for students between high school requirements and college-entry-level expectations. High school educators hope that by working more closely with college administrators and encouraging students to take nonmandatory math and English courses, districts will be able to close the gap for students between high school requirements and college-entry-level expectations.
High school educators hope that by working more closely with college administrators and encouraging students to take nonmandatory math and English courses, districts will be able to close the gap for students between high school requirements and college-entry-level expectations.

 Melissa Araya considers herself a second-year freshman at College of the Canyons.

And she’s not alone.

Araya won good grades throughout her time at Canyon High School. But when she transferred to College of the Canyons, she was in for a rude awakening.

Like many incoming freshmen, Araya didn’t score highly enough on either the math or the English placement tests. She had to take pre-college-level courses in both core subjects.

“I was absolutely infuriated,” Araya said. “I thought I’d be good in English. I was really good in English (in high school).”

Her advice to high school students today?

“What (high school advisers) say are college prep classes are not college prep,” Araya said.

Nine-out-of-10 COC students start their college careers in below-college-level, or remedial, math. Nearly as many place in below-college-level English.

Fully half of those COC students are William S. Hart Union High School District graduates. That Hart is, by most accounts, a high-achieving school district underscores the widespread nature of the gap between high school graduation requirements and college entry-level expectations. Remedial courses are almost a rite of passage for California’s college-bound high school seniors.

The problem
The hurdle is not new.

“The requirements for high school and college are not sequenced,” said David LeBarron, director of curriculum at Hart school district. “They don’t naturally roll from high school to college.”

Even in a perfectly good high school district like Hart, LeBarron said, graduates may not test well in college.

Audrey Green, COC’s associate vice president of academic affairs, said the gap has been an issue for a long time.

“I’m not sure when the discrepancy was really recognized,” Green said. “You can’t point fingers. We can’t change our curriculum, and high school can’t change their curriculum.”

Green said California’s high school standards for English literacy aren’t in line with what college professors want to see.

“The issues that exist are that the state standards in English in particular are literature-based, and what most colleges expect when students enter is more based on expository writing (skills) and developing good essays,” Green said.

But the bigger problem is math, Green said.

“Students need to meet the minimum requirement to graduate from high school, and they may do that by the end of 10th grade,” Green said.

But students who take no further math classes beyond those required find themselves in trouble when they enter college, she said.

“What happens is: Your skills are not as well-honed as they could be. Math is an issue of recency,” Green said.

This spring, College of the Canyons freshman Nick Onyshko will face his first math class in a year and a half. Onyshko stopped his high school math education with a junior-year precalculus course. Now in college, he’s tested into a college remedial math course.

Onyshko is considering challenging his placement by presenting college admissions officials with a letter of recommendation and his high school math grades.

But Onyshko knows that’s just half the battle. If he’s granted placement in a college-level math course, Onyshko has to succeed in that class despite nearly two years without cracking a single math textbook.

Still, Onyshko said he has no regrets.

“I wasn’t ready for calculus,” Onyshko said.

As the student trustee on College of the Canyons’ Board of Trustees, Onyshko has heard officials lament the time and money college students spend on remedial education. And yet, Onyshko said, it’s not really a big topic of conversation among the students.

For at least a hundred years, until the 1980s, individual high school principals within school districts decided what was required for their students to qualify for a diploma, said Joe Radding, administrator of the state education department’s Intersegmental Relations Office.

In those 100 years, there was never a straight line between teaching high school students and college preparation.

Radding’s department oversees the transition between “segments” in education: preschool to kindergarten; elementary school to middle school and high school; and high school to college. The latter category, called “matriculation,” has been a bee in state colleges’ bonnets for decades.

In the 1980s, relief seemed to be on the way. With the Cold War and the space race at their height, President Ronald Reagan commissioned a national report on education.

Titled “A Nation at Risk,” the report concluded that America was falling behind its global competitors in public-education achievement.

“The report was dramatic,” Radding said. “It harkened to a lack of educational attainment, and potentially a foreign threat (because of it). There was certainly a lot of national discussion.”

The report’s effects trickled down to California, where legislators passed an education-reform bill that mandated, for the first time at the state level, high school-graduation requirements: two years of math and four years of English.

But those requirements don’t guarantee that a high school graduate is prepared for college — or even if the requirements should prepare a graduate for college.

“There’s a lot of debate on whether it’s necessary to hold all students to the same standard,” Radding said. “Some people think since not every student will or wants to attend college, why should they complete courses that meet college admissions requirements?”

The problem, though, is that many students who do go to college end up wasting thousands of dollars and several months of their college careers learning, or often re-learning, core subjects they could have — some say should have — learned in high school.

Students’ success in almost any college program hinges on their literacy in English and math, Green said.

Since college-bound high school students don’t always adequately plan the courses they’ll take, Valencia High School Principal Paul Priesz started a pilot program to boost junior and senior enrollment in math and science classes.

Students who don’t want to take courses in those subjects during their junior or senior years must have their parents sign a form stating that they understand their teen is opting out of the courses.

“Students sometimes don’t think long term,” Priesz said. “They think, ‘I already completed the requirement. I don’t need to take math; I don’t need to take science.’”

This is the opt-out program’s first year, and enrollment in math and science is up 10 percent compared to last year. About 80 percent of Valencia High’s juniors and seniors are taking math and science, Priesz said.

“Usually, parents would prefer their teens take math and science because they know what the world requires now,” Priesz said.

LeBarron said if the program is successful, the Hart district might consider expanding it across its all its comprehensive high schools.

“We need to have more of our kids take math classes beyond two years,” LeBarron said.

In addition, the Hart district has joined other high school districts in a data-sharing partnership with state colleges and universities. By joining with higher-education institutions, high school districts can obtain student-performance data to find out where the gaps are in high school education.

“We can do some research on specific things: How are our students who perform well doing on the college entrance exams? Students who place in certain math classes at COC, what are they leaving with?” LeBarron said.

“As long as those schools work together, we know how our students are performing at different places and times. Now we can really start narrowing it down.”

Once the school district can pinpoint where students are lacking, perhaps administrators can tailor college-bound students better, LeBarron said.


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