Editorial: Failing in college prep
After 15 years, the state's MCAS tests have gone from controversial education reform to another set of mileposts in the school year. Progress has been steady enough that in most Massachusetts schools, all but a handful reach the minimal scores on the English and math tests required for graduation.
You might think that meant the state's high school graduates are ready for college, but you'd be wrong. Since the graduation requirements first kicked in, professors at state colleges have been waiting to see a difference in the skills freshmen bring. They are still waiting.
A new state study bears this out. It tracked high school graduates from the class of 2005 attending UMass or one of the state colleges, all of which require screening exams for incoming freshmen. The study found that 37 percent of the freshmen had to take at least one remedial course before being considered ready to do college-level work.
Graduates of urban high schools and vocational schools required remedial courses in the highest numbers, according to the study, which was released jointly by the state departments of Elementary and Secondary Education and Higher Education. Seventy percent of the graduates of three Boston high schools, for instance, required remedial coursework.
But too many suburban grads also aren't ready for college work. Those requiring at least one remedial course included 31 percent of graduates of Milford High; 27 percent of Marlborough grads; 25 percent of Natick grads and Franklin grads; 19 percent of Framingham grads. The poorest record among MetroWest schools was logged by Waltham High School, with 42 percent of its graduates who enter state colleges requiring remedial classes.
The reason the MCAS hasn't solved the problem of college readiness is that it wasn't intended to. The "high stakes" MCAS tests are given in the 10th grade. They are designed to measure whether the student has the knowledge and skills expected of a 10th grader, not a college freshman.
The study points to part of the unfinished business of education reform. Post-secondary education is now a necessity, not a luxury. If students are to succeed in college, the gap between high school and college must be closed.
Duel enrollment programs, in which high school students earn college-level credits, should be expanded. High school seniors should get more experience with college-style independence as well as college-level expectations. Summer programs at state and community colleges should be developed to give high school students a taste of what's to come.
The challenge goes beyond remedial courses. Studies have shown students required to take remedial courses in are more likely to drop out of college, even if they complete their remedial work. Increasing numbers of students in all colleges are flaming out in their freshman and sophomore years. They were not only poorly prepared academically, they weren't ready for the leap in freedom and responsibility that comes with the move from home to campus.
Gov. Deval Patrick's "Readiness Project" is gestating what he promises will be the next step in education reform. Easing the path from high school through college should be a key goal of that effort.