As hundreds of Baltimore public school graduates prepare to set foot on a four-year college campus in Maryland this month, nearly half will notice something familiar on their schedules: a class they took in high school.
More than from any other school district in the state, Baltimore students' test scores have pushed them into noncredit remedial courses that they must take before college-level classes, according to new data from the Maryland Higher Education Commission.
The 46 percent of city students needing remedial courses in Maryland's public universities in the 2012-2013 school year, the most recent data available, was nearly double that of neighboring districts in the Baltimore region.
The remediation rates are the latest piece of data illustrating that even as graduation rates have risen in Baltimore, the district has struggled to prepare students for the rigors of higher education. And the cost and time that students spend catching up sets many of them up for failure in college.
New Baltimore schools chief Gregory Thornton says tackling college readiness will be a "major part of the reform effort moving forward." But he says that preparing students for college must be a multifaceted, systemic approach that starts as early as kindergarten.
"Many of our kids don't come to high school ready, and then the high school carries the weight of it all," he said. "As we look down the road, this is not a high school initiative, it's a K-12 initiative. ... They are obviously not getting the opportunities throughout that are required for them to be successful."
The city, which narrowly outpaced Prince George's County's remedial rates, is hardly alone in that struggle. Last year, 21 percent of Maryland high school graduates who enrolled in a four-year public university needed remedial courses.
While Maryland's higher education and K-12 officials say the statewide rate is not alarming — it fell from nearly 25 percent in 2011 — it remains high enough to make them take notice.
Research shows that remedial courses, which typically require students to pay thousands of dollars to take noncredit courses over two semesters, have increasingly become a major deterrent to college completion. For many students, the courses are their first — and last — college experience.
"If [students] receive a high school diploma, that should be currency for college- and career-readiness," said John White, chief of staff for the Maryland State Department of Education.
Maryland's K-12 and higher education officials are looking to the new, more rigorous Common Core standards to help reduce remediation rates, particularly in math, where the biggest deficiencies lie.
"The reason we're raising the standards is so that we're not lying to kids when they graduate," White said. "They should be able to do this work."
In the past few years, there has been a national push to revamp remedial programs to make them more effective. Nationally, 20 percent of students who enrolled in college had to complete a remedial course, according to the latest data published by the National Center for Education Statistics.
Statewide, there has been a renewed emphasis on college completion, and institutions have been encouraged to help bridge any gaps students have before they begin the fall semester.
"It's a state goal to have more students obtain a bachelor's degree, and we're seeing that students can get tripped up with remedial course work," said Greg Fitzgerald, chief of staff for the Maryland Higher Education Commission. "It's going to be a win-win for everyone all around if we can get these numbers down."
In 2013, the Maryland General Assembly passed the College and Career Readiness and College Completion Act, which requires school systems to begin offering opportunities and incentives for students to participate in college-level work and degree-seeking opportunities during high school.
Fitzgerald said the state believes the legislation and the Common Core will be "game-changers."
School systems such as Baltimore County, where 24 percent of graduates headed to state public institutions were required to take remedial courses in 2012, have been ahead of the curve, partnering for several years with the Community College of Baltimore County to offer students the opportunity to take college courses for free.
Baltimore County's dual-enrollment program has been underway since 2011, and 18 students graduated from county schools with associate's degrees this past school year. The county graduated about 7,000 students in May.
According to data obtained by The Baltimore Sun, 80 percent of students from the county required remedial work at CCBC last fall, a three-year low.
Lack of guidance
While Baltimore City has been slower to make a systemwide push for more college preparedness opportunities, it has committed to broadening its program. It plans to do a full roll-out of a dual-enrollment program with Baltimore City Community College this fall.
Students who are afforded the opportunity to get college-ready in high school say they see results immediately.
This summer, about 40 city high school students enrolled in the College Readiness Academy at the University of Baltimore, a six-week program that teaches academic and social skills to help them prepare for college.
Students must participate in the academy, now in its fifth year, to take part in high school dual-enrollment courses at UB.
The university program partners with individual high schools, including six in Baltimore. UB offers classes at the schools during the academic year; if students take and pass four courses, they receive automatic admission to the university.
Kiss Hammond, 17, a rising junior at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, said the summer program helped boost her test scores. Her math scores rose 40 points. She plans to take part in the dual-enrollment program while in high school and hopes to be ready for a college-level math class.
"I learned a lot of new things," said Hammond, who wants to be a pediatrician. "When I first came in, I was struggling a lot. ... I scored terribly on the [placement test]. ... It was just so hard for me."
In recent months, city school system leaders have acknowledged that while graduation rates have reached record highs — the district graduates about 6,000 students a year — high school and college performance data have reached concerning lows.
School board members used the words "dismal" and "sobering" in reacting to a presentation on high school achievement data. For example, just 28 percent of the Baltimore students who took them passed Advanced Placement exams, which are used to assess college readiness.
"What's striking is that a number of these trends have held for a number of years," said Chairwoman Shanaysha Sauls. "So I think we need to ask ourselves a number of questions about what we're doing and what we've been reforming."
The board later heard similarly troubling numbers: Of the students in the Class of 2012 who said in a survey that they expected to enroll in college, 44 percent actually did. And of the students who graduated from high school in 2006, just 15 percent had earned a degree of any kind by 2012.
To improve college readiness, Thornton is considering strategies he found successful in Milwaukee. He said he would look to bring College Access Centers, community-based centers that serve populations in different parts of the city, to Baltimore.
His administration developed them in Milwaukee to help families, particularly those with sons and daughters who are the first to go to college, navigate the world of higher education.
In Baltimore, not enough resources are allocated to improve college preparedness, Thornton says. For instance, he said, there's a dearth of guidance counselors, and they are overburdened with the task of getting students to college.
Tyrone Holmes attended a college-preparatory high school in the city, but had to turn to his youth group, The Intersection, to help him navigate the application process at the University of Maryland Eastern Shore, which he will attend this fall.
Holmes, 18, said that when he was in his guidance counselor's office, "usually another student would come in and interrupt me. The guidance counselor is either focused on their best student or they're focused on the worst student."
He said he needed guidance on how to explain in his application why his grade-point average dropped after personal struggles, as well as help finding a college where he would feel comfortable. "I feel academically prepared, and the academic part is important, but if you don't have the guidance to get into the college, what's the academic part for?"
Local experts have long criticized the guidance that students and families receive from the school system about college.
Faith Connolly, director of the Baltimore Education Research Consortium, which tracks college enrollment and completion trends for city students, said that one of the biggest barriers is the lack of communication that city students and their parents receive about college choices.
In the consortium's latest report, which tracked trends for the Class of 2012, researchers found that students continued to be steered toward two-year schools — even though research has shown they are less likely to obtain a degree there.
Connolly said it is troubling that the number of city graduates enrolling in two-year programs continues to increase, presumably because they are perceived as the cheaper, easier and closer-to-home option.
"I don't think we've done a really good job of explaining the importance of this choice," she said.
Consortium researchers said further study is needed to understand why so few students completed two-year degrees, and that "this finding points to a need for more research concerning students' postsecondary and career goals, as well as an investigation into students' guidance and decision process."
Connolly said she believes remediation has emerged as one of the barriers to students completing degrees at the two-year schools that they are most frequently choosing. More than 85 percent of Baltimore graduates needed to enroll in at least one remedial course at BCCC and CCBC last fall.
Connolly suspects the barrier results from a lack of guidance and communication about college standards. For example, she said, guidance counselors aren't usually aware that the test scores that students must earn to avoid remedial courses at BCCC and CCBC are higher than at some four-year schools.
"I don't think our kids understand the difference between graduation requirements and [college] requirements," she said. "So we're graduating them ... and that's it."
Closing the gaps
Experts and education officials agree that the gaps students face in their transition to college are a result of a lack of collaboration between K-12 and higher education institutions.
There's been a more concerted effort to bring those leaders together to discuss standards and expectations, and colleges and universities have increasingly stepped up to help students transition after high school, state officials said.
"There are efforts that are ongoing, that have and will be expanded," said Jennifer Frank, assistant secretary of the Maryland Higher Education Commission. "We're hopeful that will help rates continue to improve."
Officials pointed to programs such as a four-week summer academy at Coppin University. Students can take remedial and prerequisite courses, and use the time to get mentally acclimated to the college environment so they are not overwhelmed in the fall.
Coppin ranked in the top five schools in which city students most frequently enrolled. Officials there said that last fall, 57 percent of its incoming Baltimore graduates needed remedial education.
At Coppin, students need as much help getting adjusted to college life as to the academic standards, said Mark Saunders, who oversees Coppin's summer academy.
The program focuses heavily on math, which Saunders said is the biggest area of need. At the end of the program last year, 97 percent of students passed the remedial math exam.
Academic deficiencies usually are a result of the learning environments that students have come from, he said.
"The K-12 experience tends to be more of low engagement," Saunders said. "And we need to get students adjusted to high engagement — asking questions, talking to instructors, taking initiative. When they come back in the fall, they're pretty much plug and play."
Baltimore Sun reporter Danae King contributed to this article.