Georgia Remediation in College Despite High Grades In High School
Easy grades equate to failing grads
By HEATHER VOGELL
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Sunday, May 3, 2009
Some metro Atlanta public high schools that don’t grade rigorously produce more graduates lacking the basic English and math skills needed for college, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has found.
Many graduates of those high schools are sent to freshmen remedial classes to learn what high school didn’t teach them. As many as a third or more college-bound graduates from some high schools need the extra instruction.
The AJC obtained data from the University System of Georgia and the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement on the percentage of first-year college students, by high school, who took remedial courses in fall 2007, and the number that had lost HOPE scholarships over six years, beginning with 2002 freshmen. The newspaper looked only at HOPE retention for students enrolled in the same institution over time. The AJC also used state data to compare high school class grades with End of Course Tests. The data did not reflect individual student performance over time, but it showed that a significant portion of schools high in graduates needing college remediation were also high in measures suggesting grade inflation. Some data categories were missing for some schools.
Problems with classroom grading came to light in a February state study that showed some high schools regularly awarded good marks to students who failed state tests in the same subject.
The AJC found that metro high schools where classroom grading appeared lax or out-of-step with state standards tended to have higher rates of students who took remedial classes. And at dozens of high schools, most graduates who received the B average needed for a state HOPE scholarship lost it in college after a few years.
Unprepared high-school graduates are a growing problem for the public university system, where remedial students are concentrated in two-year colleges.
Statewide, the remedial rate has climbed to 1 in 4 first-year students after dropping in the 1990s, said Chancellor Erroll Davis Jr. of the University System of Georgia. The cost to the system: $25 million a year.
Students such as Brandon Curry, 20, a graduate of Redan High in DeKalb County, said they were surprised to learn decent high school grades don’t always translate into college success.
“English was my strongest subject,” he said after a remedial reading class earlier this spring at Georgia Perimeter College in Clarkston. “But when I came to college, I was like, ‘Whoa.’
“I’m on this level,” he said, motioning to about knee-level. “And I’m supposed to be up here,” he said, raising his hand above his chest.
In some cases, students wrestle with basic reading comprehension, said Karen Duncan, an assistant reading professor at Perimeter.
“It’s abysmal,” she said. “We’ve got students in there who may be on the fifth- or sixth-grade level.”
The newspaper analyzed the most recent data available on graduates from 12 metro Atlanta districts who attended public colleges. The AJC compared the percentage of schools’ college-bound graduates who took remedial classes, the number that lost their HOPE scholarship, and the state study suggesting some high schools could be inflating classroom grades.
The data showed:
» For 30 of 103 metro Atlanta high schools, more than 1 in 3 of their graduates took remedial classes as freshmen in the 2007-2008 school year. At seven of those schools, at least half did.
» At 44 metro high schools, half or more HOPE scholars who began college in 2002 and remained enrolled lost the grant within four years. At a dozen of those schools, 70 percent or more did.
» In one district, Atlanta, 86 percent of the more than 200 students who entered the state’s two-year colleges in the fall of 2007 needed remedial classes. Within that group, 29 of 37 HOPE scholars needed remedial help.
However clear the problem may be to college professors, it is not one most educators in local school systems are eager to talk about. And the question of who is responsible leads to more than one answer. The classroom teacher, the principal and the school district are all under pressure to tout student successes, not failures. State education and university system officials have a role, too, yet it can be far removed from individual classrooms.
State School Superintendent Kathy Cox said Georgia is making policy changes that demand more from high school students. But she said it could be several more years before the rate of students who need remedial help falls. “For too long, we’ve kowtowed to the low expectations,” she said.
An overhaul of high school curriculum, more accountability, and changes in graduation requirements and high school course options should improve college performance, Cox said. She declined to specify when the state would be able to assess whether its reforms, which have been phased in since 2005, had succeeded.
Spokesmen for the Atlanta and DeKalb school districts issued written statements in response to questions from the newspaper about their remedial rates, which were the highest in metro Atlanta.
In an e-mail, DeKalb spokesman Dale Davis said the district encourages all schools to teach and grade rigorously. Teachers are supposed to teach the state standards and use benchmark tests to check whether students are learning what they should.
Atlanta spokesman Joe Manguno said the district believes changes it has made, such as creating smaller schools within schools and improving instruction, will over time help students perform better.
A spokesman for Clayton County, whose rate was also high, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. Principals at 10 high schools with high remedial rates either did not return a phone call or referred questions to a district spokesman.
Ultimately, high schools are responsible for monitoring how their graduates do after leaving, said Patrick Callan, president of the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education in California. But to prepare students well, he said, schools need guidance from colleges and solid teacher training programs.
“It’s a little bit of everybody that’s responsible,” he said. “It doesn’t mean no one’s accountable, but it means you have to break it up into pieces and figure out where the system is breaking down.”
Educators in other states are also struggling to raise high school standards to meet college and career expectations in a world where the labor market demands increasing academic skills from job-seekers.
For Georgia, where SAT and ACT scores as well as college graduation rates trail the nation’s, the problem is pressing. Chancellor Davis said the university system’s success hinges on how well K-12 schools prepare their students.
Classroom grading grew controversial after the Governor’s Office of Student Achievement released its study this year showing a gap between high school students’ class grades and their scores on state standardized tests—known as End of Course Tests —in the same subject.
To some, the study suggested grade inflation remains a problem in certain high schools and school districts. Even with new reforms arriving each fall, some high school teachers complain about a culture they say discourages rigorous teaching and grading.
Several current teachers said they could not agree to have their name published along with their concerns because they feared for their jobs. Their complaints echoed recent blog posts and e-mails from other teachers.
They said that some schools bar teachers from giving “zeroes”—or even failing grades —for work never submitted, let students retake classes without penalty, and punish teachers who fail too many students. They said administrators pressure them to pass students who put little or no effort into learning because of fears that the students will drop out.
Dropouts pull down a schools’ graduation rate, one of the measures used to determine whether a school has met federal standards set out in the No Child Left Behind Act.
Ann Robinson, a former high school science teacher in Cobb and Paulding counties, said friends of hers who still teach told her they believe the federal law has forced them to lower standard