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At Issue: Reading, writing, arithmetic redo

Published (2/11/2011)
By Kris Berggren
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Minnesota’s colleges and universities enroll a growing number of the state’s high school graduates, but more of them need remedial classes once they get there, according to the 2010 “Getting Prepared” report by the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system.

Of public high school graduates in 2008 53 percent attended two- or four-year public colleges or universities and 40 percent of those took at least one remedial class, up from 49 percent and 38 percent respectively two years ago.

Remediation rates vary by type of institution, said Scott Olson, MnSCU vice chancellor for academic and student affairs. Students at two-year technical and community colleges accounted for nearly two-thirds of those enrolled in public higher education, and they had a higher remedial rate, 54 percent, compared to 22 percent at state universities and just 2 percent of university students.

The university has become more selective in the admission process, while MnSCU continues its “access and opportunity” mission, Olson said.

At the Jan. 27 House Education Reform Committee meeting, Rep. John Benson (DFL-Minnetonka) wondered why colleges accept students who aren’t prepared for college-level work.

“I am not convinced we can make the reforms we need in K-12 unless there is a more clear understanding on the part of parents and students they need to buckle down in the K-12 system and not just be given a pass,” he said.

The need to redo the basics also affects students’ wallets.

Students footed half the $11.6 million bill for remediation, in fiscal year 2009, said Craig Schoenecker, MnSCU system director for research. Remedial instruction costs are 2.3 percent of the $627.8 million spent on all instruction system-wide.

“We need to improve accountability to the state,” said Rep. Connie Doepke (R-Orono), who serves on the House Education Reform and Higher Education Policy and Finance committees. “We need to improve accountability to these students.”

Math facts

Lawmakers might boost accountability by resolving recent issues around math assessment, suggested Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at Macalester College.

“We work with districts and charters all over the state, and one of the things I hear constantly from the faculty is, ‘Well, the kids know they don’t have to pass a math test in order to graduate,’” he said.

Math standards were upgraded in 2007, but high school curriculum alignment and testing is still catching up. A math test required for graduation was postponed until 2014.

Meanwhile, math counts for 50 percent of all remediation, writing 23 percent and 22 percent reading. At state universities, 90 percent of developmental courses are for math; at the university, it’s 98 percent. At two-year colleges, it’s 47 percent.

Of math remedial classes, 35 percent are for elementary algebra, 32 percent for intermediate algebra and 26 percent for arithmetic or basic math.

Yet, math competence is the best predictor of college success, according to Kent Pekel, executive director of the College Readiness Consortium at the University of Minnesota. “We know that the tipping point for finishing a four-year-degree is Algebra II or above,” he told the House Higher Education Policy and Finance Committee Feb. 1.

Bucking the trend

Some schools are bucking the trend, Nathan said, even with significant numbers of students who could be considered academically at risk because of poverty or other factors.

One example is Washburn High School in Minneapolis, where 62 percent of students are free or reduced-price lunch eligible,

19 percent have limited English proficiency and 74 percent are students of color or American Indian. Graduates’ public college enrollment jumped from 67 percent in 2008 to 79 percent in 2010, while their remediation rate decreased from 58 percent to 57 percent.

Principal Carol Markham-Cousins can’t directly correlate the report results and a school restructuring three years ago. But she’s sought to create “intentional equity” by boosting quality and expectations. Among other reforms, she ended the tracking of students by middle school performance. Instead, all ninth graders take honors English, and eventually all juniors and seniors will take international baccalaureate classes.

“We’re taking the whole concept of high expectations and not leaving that to parents or chance or how a student perceives themselves, but taking it to another level,” Markham-Cousins said.

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