By Sarah Gonzalez, Mc Nelly Torres and Lynn Waddell, Florida Center For Investigative Reporting
Shakira Lockett was a pretty good student in elementary, middle and high school. The Miami-Dade County native says she typically earned As and Bs in English classes.
Math was always something of a struggle for Lockett. Still, she got through her high school exit exam with a passing grade and went on to graduate from Coral Gables Senior High School in 2008.
She went straight to Miami Dade College. Then, something unexpected happened: She flunked the college placement exams in all three subjects – reading, writing and math. That didn’t mean she couldn’t attend the school; all state and community colleges in Florida have an open-door policy, which means everyone is accepted. But it did mean she had to take remedial courses before she could start college-level work.
“When they told me I had to start a Reading 2 and Reading 3 class, I was like, ‘Serious?’” Lockett said. “Because I’ve always been good at reading.”
Lockett, who is now 22, spent a year-and-a half taking remedial classes before she could start her first college-level class to count toward her degree in mass communication and journalism. The seven extra courses cost her $300 each.
Lockett found having to take remedial classes discouraging. “It makes you feel dumb,” Lockett said. “And you ask yourself, ‘Is there something wrong with me?’”
Lockett’s experience actually is quite normal in Florida. In 2010-11, 54 percent of students coming out of high school failed at least one subject on the Florida College System’s placement test, according to an investigation by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida. That meant nearly 30,000 students – high school graduates – had to take at least one remedial course in college.
Florida’s remedial education needs are much greater than in many other states. Nationwide, about 40 percent of all first-year students need remedial education before they can enroll in credit-bearing courses, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based policy and advocacy group.
The numbers are worse at Miami Dade College, Lockett’s school. There, 63 percent of high school graduates take at least one remedial course upon enrollment. Many of them are, like Lockett, shocked to find out that they weren’t ready for college despite having a high school diploma.
The cost of being unprepared
There’s a price to all these students showing up at Florida’s 28 community and state colleges unprepared. The students must pay for – and the state must subsidize – the remedial coursework. The costs of remedial education, shared by students and the state, have jumped from $118 million in 2004-05 to $168 million in 2010-11.
Most of the state’s cost is spent on non-traditional students – students who return to college after being out of school for a while. But according the Florida Department of Education, about one-third of the cost of remedial education is spent on students who are fresh out of Florida high schools.
Education experts say part of the problem is that a high school diploma has never been the same thing as a certificate of college readiness. There’s a curriculum gap between what high school students are taught and what they need to know going into college. And it’s been an ongoing problem that state educators have not addressed until recently.
Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has been a proponent of the state’s high school exit exam – the FCAT. But now the conservative education advocate admits the test was never meant to determine whether students are prepared for college.
“It’s really a gateway to graduate from high school, not to be college ready,” he told StateImpact Florida in an interview.
Bush said it’s evident the test is flawed since many high school students can’t graduate because they can’t pass the FCAT, which only tests 10th-grade level academic skills.
“Or worse yet, as you said, 50 percent of our students need remedial work to be able to take a college course,” he said.
Lenore Rodicio is Vice Provost for Student Achievement Initiatives at Miami Dade College. She said until high school curriculum aligns with college curriculum, state and community colleges need to fill in the gaps by offering remedial courses, also known as “developmental education.”
“One of the downfalls of developmental education,” Rodicio said, “is that students get stuck in a cycle where they don’t pass their courses and have to take multiple semesters of the developmental courses before they go in to college-level work.”
Remedial classes do not count toward a college degree. Each class runs an entire semester. And students cannot enroll in college classes until they pass all their remedial courses. But Rodicio said offering remedial courses allows Florida colleges to keep their doors open and give all students the opportunity to get a college education.
A down side, Rodicio said, is that students who fail a remedial class are less likely to make it to the finish line of graduation.
Inside a Remedial Class
At Miami Dade College, the final project for students in most remedial writing classes is to write a single paragraph by the end of a semester.
“We’re looking to see that students can focus a topic, maintain a main idea, develop that point, support that point, use transitions,” said Associate Professor Michelle Riley. And she said it’s very difficult for many of them.
During a recent remedial reading class, Riley showed students a sentence on the white board.
It read: “The bandage was wound around the wound.”
The professor asked students to read the sentence aloud. Many got stuck on the last word – pronouncing the word “wound” (sounds like “boomed”) the same way they pronounce “wound” (sounds like “ground”).
The course is one step above the lowest remedial reading level offered at Miami Dade College. Students study the difference between denotations and connotation – the difference between a word’s dictionary definition and its cultural or emotional association.
Miami high school teacher Vallet Tucker said she isn’t surprised to hear what students are learning in remedial college courses. She teaches honors English at Miami Northwestern and said her average 10th-grade student reads at a 7th-grade reading level.
“And I have honors students,” she pointed out.
“This is 10th-grade material and they’re not there yet. The vocabulary is not where it should be –the stamina for reading,” she said. “I look at some of my students and say, ‘I wish we could read this novel,’ but they’re not there yet.”
FCAT Focus of Criticism
Standardized testing has been a big part of public education in Florida for more than a decade. The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test – the FCAT – debuted in 1998. It’s used as a tool to assess high school students, determine their class placement and decide whether they can graduate from high school.
But over time, FCAT has also become a management tool. Students’ scores on that test now determine school funding levels, teacher evaluations, and starting this year teacher pay. FCAT scores also help determine whether a school itself stays open or is shut down for poor performance.
Critics of the FCAT say teachers, under pressure to help students achieve higher test scores, have emphasized test-taking skills over core subject lessons. Students are taught to memorize facts and eliminate answers on multiple-choice questions.
“From the time a child is in kindergarten, every option that a child is given has four answers for which two or three can be easy eliminated,” said Raquel Regalado, a Miami-Dade school board member. “Unfortunately, life doesn’t give you four options for which two or three can be easily eliminated. And that’s the problem.”
The FCAT has become more rigorous over the years in reading, writing and math. But the material doesn’t align with what is tested on the college entrance exam.
Policy makers have understood this for a while. In 2006, the research arm of the Florida Legislature, widely known by its acronym OPPAGA, studied remedial education in community colleges. The study concluded that the FCAT created a disconnect between the skills taught in public schools and those needed in college.
Success on the FCAT, the state accountability office found, “does not ensure students are prepared for college-level work.” OPPAGA noted that despite previous reports pointing out the same problems, state education leaders and legislators had not reviewed the effectiveness of the FCAT.
Matthew Ladner, a policy and research adviser for Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, is a defender of FCAT. He said the test, emphasized when Bush was governor, helped increase the high school graduation rate. In the 2010-2011 school year, Florida graduated the most students, and students of color, in the state’s history. Lander sees it as not surprising that some of those students would struggle at the college level.
“So we should not view the fact that these students then go on to an institution of higher education and have to take a remedial course necessarily as a catastrophic failure,” Ladner said. “This is sort of a process on the way to success in the sense that a lot of those students in Florida higher education institutions today would have dropped out of high school 15 years ago.”
The increasing number of people entering college, he said, may be a factor in rising remedial education numbers.
In Florida, the current situation has contributed to a damaging illusion among many students. Some who excel in public school and do well on the FCAT graduate thinking they are well prepared for higher education, only to find they’re not ready at all.
Shakira Lockett felt she was ready for college. The reality for her, though, was that she needed extensive remedial work at Miami Dade College. She finally completed her two-year journalism program in May – two years later than she’d expected going in.
It wasn’t easy. “I had to push myself where I need to be to make my parents proud of me and to make myself proud,” Lockett said. “Because I really want to be something in life.”
Many students can’t make it all the way through. Research shows that students who require remedial education are less likely to earn a degree than students who don’t require remediation.
Lockett can attest to this. She still remembers when her first remedial class instructor challenged her classmates to continue to make it to the finish line. Many of her classmates went on to the next remedial course with her. But when Lockett finally got her degree, those students didn’t share the stage with her.
“None of my friends were behind me,” Lockett said. “None of the people that I knew. It was just me. And I felt really, really accomplished.”
The Florida Center for Investigative Reporting is a nonprofit news organization supported by foundations and individual contributions. For more information, visit fcir.org. StateImpact Florida is an educating reporting project of NPR, WUSF in Tampa and WLRN in Miami. For more information, visit stateimpact.npr.org.