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An apology to the class of 2013

Peter Huidekoper, Jr., is a veteran educator and creator of the “Another View” newsletter.

In a few weeks the class of 2013 will begin its junior year of high school.  We know enough about the skills and knowledge of our 11th graders to see we must do something different for almost half of them during their last two years of high school—their last chance for a “free, public education”—if they are to graduate with the academic skills we expect of seniors.  If we do not, many will walk off that stage with a high school diploma in late May 2013, but without the skills needed for success in college.  Perhaps we will owe them a heartfelt apology.

Overall, 28.6 percent of recent high school graduates in Colorado need remediation upon entering a higher education institution. (In 2009, that was 8,606 students out of 30,042 first-time high school graduates assigned to remediation in at least one subject.) The cost of remedial education increased from $13 million last year to $19 million this year…. As higher education funding continues to be cut, these numbers appear even more ominous. 2010 Legislative Report on Remedial Education, Colorado Department of Higher Education, 2/4/11.

I have kept in touch with several former middle school students, now entering 11th grade.  Most will have many good choices available to them as they reach graduation.  In a few cases it won’t happen without extra effort.  Several years ago, when one junior—a former student—scored low on the 10th grade CSAP and the PLAN (a pre-ACT) assessment, her parents brought her in for a few tutoring sessions.  Scores improved.  After graduating she went on to a state university.  Motivated students, from supportive families.  They’ll be OK.

But when we see at least half of Colorado’s 10th graders are not proficient in writing, math, or science (in 2010, 50 percent in writing, 67 percent in math, and 50 percent in science scored Unsatisfactory or Partially Proficient), and 30 percent are not proficient in reading, isn’t it clear we need to rethink how we serve these teenagers during their final two years of high school?  Especially when we know they may not have parents advocating for them, or they may doubt the necessity of going the extra mile before they graduate? (Hey, can’t I just zip through a few credit-recovery courses?)

I wish I heard more on how schools are making such adjustments.  I wish we were doing more to focus on the obvious academic needs of such a huge percentage of our soon-to-be graduates, while in high school.  Especially given a recent report, Shining a Light on College Remediation in Colorado,  that draws a strong correlation between CSAP scores and graduates who need remediation classes (co-authored by Diane Lefly and Jo O’Brien at the Colorado Department of Education and Cheryl D. Lovell, chief academic officer for the Colorado Department of Higher Education. The full report is available here. )

I believe K-12 education must own this problem.  In this week’s ‘Inside Higher Ed,’ “5 Myths of Remedial Ed” (by Bruce Vandal of the Denver-based Education Commission of the States and Jane Wellman), Myth # 1, we are told, is that “remedial education is K-12’s problem” (July 21, 2011).  It is not?  Really?  They write: “Because colleges have not clearly articulated the skills that students must possess to be college-ready, students are blindsided when they are placed into remedial courses.  And high schools don’t have a clear benchmark for preparing students for success.”  Sure, we can do better to bridge the gap, and common expectations will help.

The class of 2013 took its last CSAP in March. We will soon see their scores.  High schools will have a good idea of who needs extra help now—not in two years. If the CSAP results for 10th graders over the recent past hold true, they will show that more than 20,000 students need courses that address essential skills during their final two years.   Instead, most juniors will be allowed to take their chosen classes—let’s see, Popular Literature, American Lit., or World Lit.?—and will earn the necessary credits to graduate.  Soon after, however, as they try to take their first college class, many will discover what that degree doesn’t mean.

Early college, dual enrollment, more AP classes

In light of this evidence, with remediation rates around 29 percent every year, much of the focus these days strikes me as misplaced: grow so-called “early college” programs, increase “concurrent enrollment” so 11th and 12th graders can receive college credit, expand AP offerings, etc.  A former student, just graduating, tells me of five “college course/credits” she took in high school, starting in 10th grade.  Taught by high school teachers.  What about half the class of 2013 who just showed us on the spring CSAP that they did not meet our expectations of a 10th grader? They don’t need college classes.  First let’s help them meet 9th and 10th grade standards.

You say I’m missing the point?  Please know, I agree it’s great to enable more students to take challenging classes.  Yes, give them a push.  Good high schools have done this, and will keep doing so—without being compelled to market their classes, “hey, get college credit too!”  But we must do better by many students who are on track to “graduate” with a diploma that means too little.

I am not saying 10th grade CSAP scores determine college readiness. But I would say—as does the report Shining a Light on College Remediation—that together with ACT results and remediation rates—they tell us something.  Holly Yettick’s blog on Education News Colorado in April raised valid points on the potential misuse of any one of these for accountability purposes.  But if students are “blindsided” when they enter college, take a quick test, and find they must take a remedial class, who is to blame?  Not higher ed.  This is why high schools need to grasp that the 10th grade CSAP does have value, and might well predict many of the students who in two years will need to submit to a remedial class.  Maybe it is not that we misuse the data. Perhaps we don’t use it at all!

Let me ask: If Colorado were a teacher and looked at the 2011 CSAP results of its rising juniors, some 20,000 or so not proficient, wouldn’t it be malpractice if we did not make major changes in our program in order to best meet their needs?  What good teacher gives a formative evaluation–and ignores the results?

We read of big plans under way to create something different—something new. Last November the Colorado Commission on Higher Education and the Colorado State Board of Education agreed to a vision for “Colorado’s Postsecondary and Workforce Readiness (PWR) Assessment System.”  It states:

Colorado’s new assessment system will signal mastery of PWR Colorado Academic Standards at grade level …. the new assessment system will also measure progress toward PWR. It will be designed to produce meaningful results which will be both easy to understand and applicable to students, parents and educators…. Ongoing feedback, student relevance and interim results each represent a new approach… The assessment system will inform instruction and provide early feedback, which will also help to reduce remediation.

Nice in theory.  Here’s another view: We talk a good game, and yet fail to make the changes in our middle and high schools, in the classes and structures we create for our students, that the facts tell us—fairly scream at us—are so necessary.  Results from the old assessment have been painfully clear for over a decade. Have we made important changes?  Will new assessments do the job?  Not if we find a way— as we often do—to turn a blind eye and just go on about our business.

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