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Remedial courses questioned

Report supports proposal to halt state funding of makeup classes

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About half the first-time freshmen taking remedial classes in Utah colleges and universities are fresh out of high school, states a preliminary report released Friday to the State Board of Regents.

It's a number that seems to give fuel to the march toward relieving the state of its funding obligation for remedial or "developmental" courses, at least for those right out of high school.

"I'm not surprised," Gov. Olene Walker told the Deseret Morning News.

The new numbers are in line with estimates discussed when Walker told school presidents last December to come up with plans by July for stand-alone, self-sustaining facilities for all remediation courses.

"That's where we're going," said Commissioner of Higher Education Rich Kendell. Within the next two months, he added, regents will have a new policy on remediation.

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Remedial classes

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Legislators estimated last session that the state could save about $3 million if students funded remediation on their own. The 2004 Legislature passed a resolution that also puts pressure on higher education to solve its remediation funding woes.

The new report published by the Utah System of Higher Education shows that from fall 1998 to fall 2003, an average each year of 3,373 first-time freshmen — 17 percent of the total freshman student population — were enrolled in remedial classes throughout the system.

Of that group, 48 percent entered college within 12 months of high school graduation, according to the report. About three-quarters of those students needed remediation in math while the rest needed help in composition, reading and English as a second language.

Phyllis Safman, USHE assistant commissioner for academic affairs, said more information will be gathered in areas like age, ethnicity and gender of those taking remedial courses and how much the classes help with a student's overall success in college.

Analysis of the latest data appears to point the finger at public schools for not better preparing students for college.

For example, one idea in Friday's meeting was to explore ways to detect deficiencies by the end of a high school student's junior year so that they could spend their senior year getting up to speed. That would avoid putting the burden of remediation on higher education.

But the state public schools chief says parents and legislators must share the blame and work together to turn the numbers around.

"We know that those high school students . . . who take rigorous course work do well on college entrance exams. They are well prepared to enter college. The State Board of Education is introducing even more rigor in the high school experience through the Performance Plus initiative. Public education is doing its part," said Patrick Ogden, interim state superintendent of public instruction.

The "target audience" who may be exempt from having to fully fund their own remediation needs may be those who have been out of school and in the job market for several years, then decide to go back to better their chances of making more money, Kendell said.

"There will always be some need for remediation," said Utah Valley State College President William Sederburg. UVSC is second only to Salt Lake Community College in providing the most remediation courses.

The question for Sederburg is at what point should the state help pay — at the high school or college level? "I think the state can pay early or pay later."

Not forgotten are those who go on two-year missions for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints right after high school. It's a widely represented group in Utah that may also get a pass on having to fully fund their own remediation needs.

Currently, the state's four universities have self-supporting remediation programs while the five remaining colleges all receive state funds for the courses.

Walker believes remedial classes could be made more cost-effective, perhaps by having volunteers and retired professors and schoolteachers help teach and essentially shrink class size.

"I want students to get higher education training," she said. "I think it's critical, and I don't want to make it more expensive for them."

Safman is quick to make the link between students who need remediation and don't get it or who do poorly in remedial courses, and with those who end up incarcerated or on welfare.

"They are far less likely to get jobs that pay better," she said.

Public school projects could ease the demand for remedial classes.

The State Board of Education is working to notch up expectations, perhaps by requiring at least C grades in classes such as language arts and math, and requiring students to show what they know in order to earn a high school diploma. The concepts are part of the proposed "Performance Plus," which includes extra help for struggling kids as young as kindergarten.

The state's extensive testing system, U-PASS, aims to help teachers pinpoint where students need help.

And all sophomores, beginning with this year's crop, must pass a basic skills test in reading and math in order to graduate.

Still, more could be done.

"The finger . . . is pointing at all education, that we work together to make sure students are ready for higher education, and we look at individual students and the skills they've mastered," Walker said. "I think parents and students have to take a greater responsibility if they anticipate going into higher education, that they have the skills to enter our colleges and universities."

ACT college entrance test data back her argument.

ACT officials recommend college-bound high school students take more challenging courses, including four years of English and three years each of math, social science and natural sciences. The recommendation exceeds most state graduation requirements: three years' English and social science, two years of math and science among other courses.

Nationally, 57 percent of ACT participants took recommended core classes. In Utah, 42 percent took such classes. And in Jordan District, the state's largest with 74,000 students, 41 percent took them, said Frank Shaw, the district's director of evaluation.

"Schools are advising them," he said. "But . . . it still boils down to a family choice."

Still, the report doesn't have to be about blame.

Jordan Superintendent Barry Newbold said higher and public education bosses ought to sit down and talk about working together for students to have a more seamless transition to college.

For instance, colleges and universities have different standards on which students must take remedial courses and who's academically OK — an issue discovered when Jordan District attempted to find out how many of its graduates were referred to remedial classes.

Minimum ACT math scores are as high as 23 at Weber State University and as low as 15 for Snow College. Scores below that require students to take remediation courses. The same variations hold true for English composition and reading scores.

The differing standards have Jordan District estimating anywhere from 7.3 percent to 24.7 percent of its students could be referred to remedial courses in English, depending on the institution and the student's ACT score. In math, the estimates fall between 6.3 percent and 34 percent; in reading, between 7.6 percent and 22.5 percent.

"For the first time to my knowledge, (regents) actually have specific data about the makeup of those students in those remedial classes," Newbold said. "This is a very positive report, because it's more specific. With more specifics, we can focus more directly on finding solutions and helping students."

E-mail: sspeckman@desnews.com; jtcook@desnews.com