Before the Bard, the basics

Community colleges bring students up to speed in basic skills

March 22, 2001|By Joanna Daemmrich | Joanna Daemmrich,SUN STAFF

ROCKVILLE - Gearing up for a quiz, Dan Davis' students struggle to make sense of eighth- and ninth-grade texts. Few can readily answer the vocabulary questions. One student makes basic grammatical mistakes. Another puzzles over the meaning of a short paragraph.

It might not be surprising for high school - but Davis is teaching a college class.

Even though most of his 25 students have graduated from one of Maryland's best public school systems, they failed to demonstrate reading and writing skills on Montgomery College's entrance test that would be sufficient for 12th grade, let alone a college literature course.

So instead of Shakespeare, they're studying simple sentence structure and paragraph organization in College Reading Skills I, one of 209 remedial classes at the community college.

FOR THE RECORD - In a Page 1A article about remedial education yesterday, the names of Melissa Bonomo, Shaun Saunders and Judith Ackerman were misspelled. The Sun regrets the errors.

"It's sort of basic," acknowledges Danielle Jackson, 21, a 1998 graduate of Rockville's Richard Montgomery High School. Yet Davis' class has proven to be more than just a refresher.

"There were a lot of words I didn't know how to use right," Jackson says. "I never really understood what's a main idea, topic sentence. I don't think they explained it too well in school."

Across the state and nation, reading, writing and math lessons that should have been mastered in high school have become a consistent, if not growing, focus of colleges. It's one of the chief reasons for the drive by Maryland education and business leaders for tough new tests that all high school students would have to pass to graduate, tests that are slowly being developed by the state school board.

Enrollment in remedial courses, particularly at Maryland's 16 community colleges, has remained high and risen slightly in reading since the mid-1990s, according to the Maryland Higher Education Commission - even among students who took "college preparatory" courses in high school.

As many as a third of the state's 1998 high school graduates who went to Maryland colleges had to take remedial math, according to the commission's most recent report. Almost a quarter required English or reading remediation, "a noticeable increase" from previous years, the commission found.

Such remediation cost Maryland colleges $17.6 million in 1995, the last fiscal year for which such statewide statistics are available. Taxpayer-financed two-year institutions picked up more than 90 percent of the tab. That's because more community college students need remediation - and these schools consider it their mission to serve the least ready.

"Our problem is a very real one," says Barbara Hopkins, a vice president at Baltimore City Community College, where 85 percent of students have to take at least one remedial course. "You wouldn't believe how many people come here, and they're very bright, but they can't read or do simple multiplication."

Nor do all the lagging students come from failing inner-city schools. Even in affluent suburbs - in Maryland and elsewhere - community college catalogues are filled with thousands of "developmental" courses that reintroduce everything from seventh-grade composition to algebra.

In 1991, Montgomery College, the community college in Maryland's wealthiest county, barely filled one section of entry-level English. Since then, that same course has grown to 40 sections - and the percentage of all students enrolled in remedial English has doubled, from 2.6 percent to 5.6 percent.

Similarly, Howard Community College's spring catalogue lists 44 remedial math sections, twice as many as its regular freshman math courses. And Anne Arundel Community College's math professors devote 45 percent of their time to remediation, considerably more than a decade ago.

To be sure, many suburban community colleges are experiencing an enrollment boom, and large numbers of their remedial students are middle-aged adults who want to complete their education or improve their job skills. Others include growing numbers of immigrants for whom English is a second language.

But what disturbs educators is the percentage of recent graduates who need help. "You ought to be able to walk out of your high school math class and into your college math class without missing a beat," says Raymond Bartlett, who sits on the state school board.

Some higher education and business leaders call it the unintended legacy of social promotion, the long-standing practice at many public schools of automatically advancing students to the next grade. It won't end, they say, until the state enforces high school standards with stiff graduation tests.

"Colleges should be in the business of extending knowledge beyond the basics," says June Streckfus, executive director of the Maryland Business Roundtable for Education, which has urged such testing for more than a decade. "So should companies. We think there's such an urgency now to raise our high school standards, given the speed with which the work world is changing."

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