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Imagine the pride of finishing your senior year of high school only to discover when you arrive at college that you need to take some basic courses in reading and writing – subjects you were supposed to master in high school, maybe even middle school – before you can start your college career. A New Jersey report says that’s happening much too often.

Like many college freshman, Indian Mills resident Rebecca Basenfelder was more than eager to dive into college work and move on with the rest of her life.

But the Shawnee High School graduate spent her freshman year in educational limbo. Having flunked both the English and math portions of her college placement test, she spent her first year at Burlington County College (BCC) taking non-credit bearing remedial classes, relearning math she vaguely remembered from middle school and brushing up on her rusty writing skills.

“It makes you feel really dumb relearning pre-algebra from eighth grade,” admits Basenfelder, 27, who recently graduated from BCC where she was active in student government and activities.

Her first year of college life was not exactly how she dreamed it would be, but it turns out Basenfelder’s experiences are typical of college students in the Garden State. Although New Jersey has the highest high school graduation rate in the nation, “a distressingly high percentage of those who do graduate are unprepared for college or careers,” according to a recent report issued by a NJ Department of Education task force.

Some 70 percent of first-time students entering college at one of New Jersey’s 19 two-year colleges in 2010-11 required remedial coursework after failing at least one subject on the college-readiness test, called Accuplacer. (Accuplacer is used by all New Jersey public colleges, according to the New Jersey Council of Community Colleges.)

Although students at the state’s four-year public colleges and universities fare better, these institutions are still heavily involved in the remediation business. About 32 percent of all first-time students in the senior colleges and universities require services, according to the College and Career Readiness Task Force. This committee was charged with examining why so many high school graduates needed additional coursework to enter college. Many of the group’s proposed solutions have already been enacted and are contributing to major changes to the delivery of education in public schools and colleges statewide.

Remedial coursework at the college level exacts a high price on students and society as a whole. It increases the time and expense students spend on education while delaying their entrance into the work force. Moreover, it stresses colleges, adding costs and contributing to a “loss of public trust in the value of the investment in education,” according to the task force report.

Perhaps most distressing of all, students who begin college in remedial classes are less likely to graduate than those who arrive ready for college-level work.

Nationwide, only 25 percent of students who take remedial courses complete a degree within eight years, according to the task force report. And the issue has only taken on more urgency within the last year due to major changes in the structure of Pell Grants, the federal financial aid program that the vast majority of lower income students tap into to pay for college.

shutterstock_108571700The grants now have a lifetime limit of six years or 12 full-time semesters. Any amount of time spent taking non-credit remedial coursework is counted toward the 12 semesters, explains Camden County College (CCC) President Raymond Yannuzzi. At CCC, for example, where some 70 percent of students require some remedial or refresher work and more than 50 percent of enrollees are Pell Grant recipients, this absolutely has an impact, says Yannuzzi.

“In the 1980s, Pell grants were virtually unlimited,” he adds. “It was not unusual for a student to spend two or three semesters in remedial classes before taking a full load. Because of the changes in Pell regulations, all colleges are under pressure to come up with other ways to deliver the education.”

While the task force results may be eye-opening to the general public, they come as no surprise to local educators, who say they have known for years that the topics covered by New Jersey’s High School Proficiency Assessment (HSPA), the standardized test used in grades 11 and 12 to measure achievement and required for graduation, is not a measure of college readiness. According to the report, high-stakes high school exit exams – HSPA included – establish passing scores that measure proficiency at the eighth to 10th grade levels.

“What has been tested and currently is being tested at the community-college level is not necessarily in sync with what we test at the high school level,” explains Pemberton Township Schools Superintendent Michael Gorman, who served on the task force. “It’s not an excuse. It’s just reality.”

If it’s any consolation, the disconnect between what is taught and tested in high school and what should be mastered in preparation for college and careers is a coast-to-coast issue. Nationwide, about 40 percent of all first-year college students require remedial lessons before they can enroll in credit-bearing courses, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based policy and advocacy group.

For Gorman, the real value of the task force is that for the first time, educators and business leaders convened to agree upon what students need to know to be considered “career and college ready.” Until very recently, there was widespread disagreement among the various stakeholders over what skills should be tested and mastered. In addition, there was little meaningful dialog between collegiate and secondary-level educators to fix the problem.

“We are all in the same book now,” says Gorman. “The task force’s real goal was to at least get a common language for what is an appropriate credential to enter into a seamless collegiate program.”

Perhaps the task force’s greatest contribution, according to Gorman, was to endorse the state’s adoption of Common Core State Standards as a curricular framework for kindergarten through 12th grade education and the replacement of the watered-down HSPA with a system of end-of-course assessments tied to the Common Core.

The Common Core, which has been adopted by 46 states and endorsed by President Barack Obama, stresses critical thinking skills starting in kindergarten, when instead of just having stories read to them, young students are expected to compare and contrast characters. Gorman says the more rigorous curriculum, starting with the youngest children and building in sophistication, is designed to better prepare youngsters for college and entry-level jobs.

Meanwhile, given the Pell Grant changes and task force mandate, secondary schools and colleges are working more closely than ever to better prepare high school students for higher education.

Following the first ever “Student Success Summit” last November, which was devoted to improving remedial education, the New Jersey Council of Community Colleges has been working with the State Department of Education on a program to expose every high school student in the state to college-level work. The goal of its College Readiness Now program, still in the planning stages, is to give 11th graders the chance to take the Accuplacer test. Any student who achieves college-ready status would then be offered the opportunity to take college-level courses in high school, while those with failing scores would be encouraged to take the necessary coursework to pass the exam.

“It is important, and it is something we have to do because too many of our students are graduating high school not ready for college,” says Jacob Farbman, council spokesman “We have moved past the stage in which we dwell on whose fault it is. We recognize we have to have better high school-college collaboration.”

In SJ, such collaboration is already commonplace and making inroads to reducing the need for remediation.

In Camden County, for example, nearly every high school already offers students the chance to take the Accuplacer exam. CCC’s College Now offers five different programs available to high-school and home-schooled students. Among the offerings, High School Plus gives students the opportunity to take college courses during the school day in the high schools, while Virtual College Now offers courses online. Prep Express was created for students who failed sections of the Accuplacer exam, offering them opportunities in the spring and summer before college to prepare to retake the exam before entering college.

For those out of high school, there are multiple opportunities to retake the exam before enrolling in an actual 15-week remedial course. For example, prior to the start of every semester, the college offers four-day review classes that may be just enough of a refresher for students who were near passing level, says Yanuzzi. In addition, students can take the exam two times for free. Sample tests are online and students are encouraged to study prior to testing. In recent years, says Yannuzzi, the focus on giving students more opportunities to prove they can pass the exam and opportunities to brush up on rusty skills have paid off. While some 70 percent of students initially fail a section of the college placement exam, only about 60 percent end up needing to take some remediation coursework.

“The test results absolutely are not scientific,” says Yannuzzi. “We’re dealing with people, we’re dealing with attitudes. We give them every opportunity to show they can pass the exam.”

Gloucester County College’s (GCC) partnership with high schools has produced tangible rewards as well. With six of the 13 Gloucester County High Schools offering courses tied to preparation for Accuplacer, the percentage of students taking remedial coursework in college has dropped from approximately 65 percent of students four years ago to 60 percent today, says Fred Keating, GCC president.

Keating is optimistic that the numbers will decrease in time with the introduction of a bridge program that will soon be offered to all Gloucester County high school seniors in their second semester as well as the summer following graduation. The program, still in planning, will open up both credit-bearing college courses and coursework more specifically geared to giving young adults skills to succeed in any college.

“I believe every high school senior should be on the college campus for some portion of the senior year if they aspire to higher education or a trade,” says Keating. “A high-performing high school senior still may need time management skills, and a student who’s going into cosmetology could benefit from a course in business planning.”

At BCC, where approximately 63 percent of students took at least one remedial class, high school students in Willingboro and Pemberton take the Accuplacer exam in the fall of their senior year in a pilot program between BCC and the College Board, which developed the Accuplacer exam. Those students who miss the passing mark work with computer-aided instruction designed to hone in on their weaknesses.

In addition, BCC is working to revamp the entire first-year experience of its students with more emphasis on motivating at-risk students and grounding them in study skills.

Among the new initiatives, students enrolled in remedial classes last fall were encouraged to participate in a Leadership Success Series featuring guest speakers to motivate students to believe in their abilities to succeed. Among them were motivational speaker Stedman Graham and U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Troy D. Barnes.

The series offered students skills in applying psychological and academic tools, goal setting, career planning, and effective communication skills as well as stressing the importance of degree completion. It also came with one tuition-free academic credit.

Moreover, BCC college professors are more focused on getting help to struggling students. If a student is not showing up to class or the grades are sliding, the professor will alert the student’s advisor to reach out to that student.

Looking back on her own experiences, Basenfelder says taking a full year of remedial classes was a rough start but it did prepare her for the rigors of college.

“I knew I just had to get through it,” says Basenfelder, who works as a head teacher in a preschool in Sicklerville and plans to pursue a career helping children after rounding out her education with a bachelor’s and master’s degrees. “The fact was I got my act together, because I had to get my degree.”

June 2013
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