Reading, writing, arithmetic, and remediation for incoming college students

MaryAnne Shults

A total of 80 percent of the 2.6 million enrolled in California’s community college system require some type of basic skills instruction in reading, writing and mathematics.

Some can read a paragraph but cannot understand the meaning of the words, while others can write an essay but do not comprehend the proper structure.

Then there are those who are proficient at college-level reading and writing, but cannot add square roots or solve a basic linear equation.

Experts call that a recipe for disaster.

“Students graduate from high school and think community college is just a continuation,” said Cheryl Altman,” a reading and ESL instructor at Saddleback College. “They are in for a rude awakening because demands of reading and writing in college are enormous and [a student] cannot get by without reading the textbook.”

According to a report by the National Center for Education Statistics, on a national survey of public colleges, 28 percent of incoming two-year students and 18.6 percent of four-year students require at least one remedial course to improve skills lacking to succeed.

The majority of community colleges offer developmental classes to improve skills in English composition, reading comprehension, and pre-college algebra.

The students in these basic skills classes come from a broad spectrum, from recent high school graduates to retirees who are required to return to the work force for financial reasons.

Among others are veterans returning from active duty, those laid off from full-time jobs, or middle-aged women who stayed home to raise children. The majority of community college students, however, are right out of high school.

What students learn in high school and what they are expected to know in college do not always line up, experts say. Nonetheless, about four-fifths of high school graduates want a college degree, according to statistics.

At Saddleback College, about 1,200 high school students participate in the matriculation department’s Early Bird program, said counselor Darren England. This includes online orientation, assessment testing in math, English and reading, and a group advisement session to help students determine their educational goal and plan a first semester schedule.

“During their last semester [of high school], students can complete the whole matriculation process while still in high school, said England.”

Students who have passed all of their core college preparatory courses in grades 9-12 come to community colleges from a wide variety of high schools and from a wide variety of family and personal circumstances. Oft times, teaching emphasis and student interest in the subject determine the level of understanding of concepts, memorizing facts and formulas, and how much a student retains and can apply in college.

Experts are seeking ways to help bridge the communication gap between high schools and colleges to best align student basic skill retention.

“Schools should promote more reading, especially after elementary school,” said Altman. “The emphasis on reading becomes reading to learn. There are strategies and techniques these students can be introduced to in junior high and high school to carry through.”

The state’s Legislative Analyst’s Office unveiled a plan in June to help identify and improve college readiness in high school students, “We identify a number of state policies that we believe stand in the way of student success, and recommend several structural and system-wide changes designed to help increase preparedness and achievement among community college students.”

Reaching the goals could mean huge savings for the high prices that colleges, students and taxpayers fork out to cover the costs of remediation. The Alliance for Excellent Education reports that nationwide costs equate to about $3.7 billion including governmental costs, tuition, salaries, support services, counseling, etc.

Michael Kirst, a professor of education and business administration at Stanford University, believes that part of the problem is a disjuncture of communication between high school and colleges.

In 2004, the Chancellor’s Office of the California Community Colleges funded a grant to enhance students’ basic skills across the curriculum so that it leads to greater student success, retention and persistence. The project is called the Basic Skills Initiative.

Altman, who is the interim BSI coordinator for Saddleback said, “The want faculty to be aware of student’s basic needs across the disciplines.”

In 2005, Jack O’Connell, California’s superintendent of public schools, created a council to promote relationships between educators at the preschool through college levels. It includes members of the business community, two- and four-year colleges, teachers, school boards, students and parents.

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