College students in Md. not ready

April 13, 1995|By David Folkenflik | David Folkenflik,Sun Staff Writer

Roughly 17,500 graduates marched off from Maryland public high schools to college campuses across the state in 1993. Trouble is, more than one-third of them went there to enroll in a high school class.

A new government study finds that these Maryland freshmen are not ready to handle college-level courses in reading, writing and arithmetic. That level is typical of the past few years, according to SOAR -- the third-annual Maryland Student Outcome and Achievement Report.

"We're acutely aware of this," said Denny Gulick, a math professor at the University of Maryland College Park who is chairman of the school's general education committee. "We hate the fact that such a big percentage of the students aren't ready to be taking the college courses."

The problem was particularly severe in mathematics. More than 18 percent of Maryland public high school graduates who were freshmen at four-year, public universities and more than 47 percent of community college freshmen took at least one remedial course in mathematics. Only 8.4 percent of Maryland public school graduates do at the private colleges in the state.

Each campus defines remedial courses -- for which students pay tuition but generally receive no college credit -- in its own way, so comparisons between schools can be difficult.

Yet it seems that the effort to concentrate remedial education at the state's two-year colleges has not been entirely successful: At RTC the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, 46 percent of freshmen from Maryland needed makeup courses in reading; at Bowie State, 34 percent took remedial courses in English; and at UMCP, 29 percent took remedial courses in mathematics.

The study, conducted by the Maryland Higher Education Commission, was based on students who graduated from Maryland high schools in the spring of 1993 and entered public and private campuses in the state that fall.

A 1989 national survey by the National Center for Education Statistics, the most recent one available, showed that about 30 percent of all students needed to take noncredit courses to catch up.

"It's a large number," Towson State University President Hoke L. Smith said. "You are not admitting just students from the top of the class. . . . The high school curriculum does not prepare all students equally well for college."

Statewide, more than one-third of in-state, first-year students at all public and private campuses needed remedial math instruction, while nearly a quarter needed it in English and roughly one-fifth did in reading.

Some higher education analysts said they did not want to draw too many conclusions from the remedial education data. Remedial education programs in math at Catonsville Community College, for example, may differ in intensity, pace and content from those offered at UMCP, although the same percentage of students take remedial math courses at the two schools.

"That's like asking, is remediation at Harvard the same as remediation at the local state college," said Dr. Ansley Abraham, who studies the issue for the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta. "The level of it is going to be very different at the two."

Said UMCP's Dr. Gulick: "One of the problems with the MHEC document is that it's trying to make one size fit all."

UMCP, for example, offers no remedial courses in reading or writing. All students take freshman writing courses, unless the new students place out of them through their scores on the Scholastic Assessment Test.

The numbers were more marked for specific regions of the state and certain college campuses, and they were much higher at the state's two-year schools than elsewhere. But they offer a confusing window onto the world of higher education in the state. Average SAT scores have risen at all of Maryland's public four-year campuses over the last 15 years.

In math, for example, four-year campuses generally require students who score below a certain level on the SAT to take a placement exam to see if they need a semester or two of math to make up for algebra and trigonometry.

The highest rates of enrollment in remedial courses occurred at Baltimore City Community College. "It's another indication of the education underattainment of city residents," said James D. Tschechtelin, president of BCCC.

BCCC requires about three-quarters of all students to take remedial math, reading and English courses. Dundalk Community College, Hagerstown Junior College and Harford Community College have similarly high rates in math.

And suburban high school graduates were placed in remedial classes nearly as often as their city counterparts. Except for Carroll County, all school systems in the Baltimore area had more than a third of their graduates in remedial math. Since the figures do not include students at out-of-state colleges, they cannot be used for direct comparisons of school systems. Thirty-five percent of 1992 Maryland high school graduates who were attending four-year colleges were enrolled at out-of-state campuses. Those who leave are more likely to be high-achievers, some state officials contend.

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