Remedial Shame

04/26/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

If there is an acid test for K-12 education, it is whether high school graduates are prepared to take college classes without needing remediation.

Aurora fails that test in a big way. So does Denver. More than half the college-bound students in both big urban districts need remedial help in at least one basic subject area - reading, writing or math.

And the state as a whole has nothing to brag about: Its remediation rate stands at 32 percent. That's right: Nearly one out of every three Colorado high school graduates enrolled in a Colorado college or university in the fall of 2008 had to take at least one remedial class last year. Statewide, the remediation rate has held steady for the past five years. (See the numbers for yourself in our new data center.)

Students enrolling in community colleges need a lot more remedial help than those going to four-year schools. Some 53 percent of community college enrollees needed remediation, compared to 20 percent entering four-year schools. Since community college students tend to be disproportionately low-income kids of color, it's easy to see where the biggest problem resides.

The numbers are sobering, the trend depressing. Despite the state's avowed focus on improving K-12 education, nothing anyone has tried has moved this most important needle.

Looking at a list of the state's large districts, one is hard-pressed to find rays of sunshine. One exception might be Jefferson County - the state's largest district - where the remediation rate has dropped by 4.7 percentage points over the past five years. Still, better than one in four Jeffco graduates needs remediation.

Elsewhere, though, the rate has stayed flat or has climbed. Aurora? Up 11 percentage points in five years. Denver? Up 5.7 percentage points. Cherry Creek? Up 3.6 percentage points. Douglas County? Flat.

Are these districts enrolling higher percentages of low-income kids? Yes. Does this explain the flat or increasing remediation rates? No one can say with certainty.

Some districts point out that significant innovations in the past couple of years don't show up in this data. What is called 2009 data actually comes from the fall of 2008. This may be true. But name a school district that doesn't, at any given point in time, claim to be in the midst of significant new reforms. I'll look for next year's results to be better. But I won't hold my breath.

Where have we gone wrong? Are the steps we are now taking - Colorado Achievement Plan for Kids, new state standards, new assessments - finally going to make a difference? How long will it take for the results to appear in the form of lower remediation rates?

Anyone who tells you he or she knows the answer to any of those questions is deluded. All we can do is hope. Well, actually, we can do more than hope. We can hold ourselves to a higher standard - literally and figuratively.

A first step would be to stop the practice of boasting about increased high school graduation rates unless and until remediation rates drop. Pawning the problem off on someone else and then claiming to have solved it is the worst sort of cynical, statistical sleight of hand.

Jettisoning jargon and vague platitudes, and getting clear about what we expect would also help. Diane Ravitch, in her new book (The Death and Life of the Great American School System) traces the malaise in our school systems to the abandonment of meaningful content standard development; this in the wake of a political controversy over history standards in the mid-1990s. Following the controversy, Ravitch writes,

..with a few honorable exceptions, the states wrote and published vague documents and called them standards. Teachers continued to rely on textbooks to determine what to teach and test...Business leaders continued to grouse that they had to spend large amounts of money to train new workers; the media continued to highlight the mediocre performance of American students on international tests; and colleges continued to report that about a third of their freshman needed remediation in the basic skills of reading, writing and mathematics.

Will setting the bar higher - and being specific about what clearing the bar entails - make a difference? In our fractured and dysfunctional political climate, is such an achievement even possible, on either a statewide or national basis? Color me skeptical.

But we have to keep trying - and to demonstrate the courage to make hard and unpopular choices. The alternative is to continue living with remediation rates like these:

West High School, Denver: 87 percent

North High School, Denver: 75 percent

Montbello High School, Denver: 73 percent

Aurora Central High School, Aurora: 71 percent

Abraham Lincoln High School, Denver: 69 percent

McLain Community High School, Jefferson County: 67 percent.

You get the picture.