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Thousands of Maryland high school seniors must do remedial work to prepare them for college

Thousands of high school seniors across Maryland will be required this fall to do remedial work in math and English — even if they’ve passed those classes their entire student career — because they are not considered ready for college.
Thousands of high school seniors across Maryland will be required this fall to do remedial work in math and English — even if they’ve passed those classes their entire student career — because they are not considered ready for college. (Algerina Perna / Baltimore Sun)

Thousands of high school seniors across Maryland will be required this fall to do remedial work in math and English — even if they've passed those classes their entire student career — because they are not considered ready for college.

Suburban school systems in the Baltimore region project that about 40 percent of seniors scored too low on the SAT and other college prep tests and must do "transition" remedial coursework, while the city projects that at least half of seniors will need to do so.

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This is the first year for the remedial coursework required under a 2013 law.

"We knew the standards were coming. We knew they were vastly more rigorous than the expectations were before. Now the day of reckoning has come," said Baltimore schools CEO Sonja Santelises.

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The new requirement represents a fundamental shift in what's expected of public school graduates.

While some students may be focused on pursuing a trade or getting a job after high school, educators say they still need a level of academic achievement that's equivalent to being college-ready in order to land jobs that pay a living wage, or enough to raise a family.

"We had a shift in expectations," said Bernard Sadusky, executive director of the Maryland Association of Community Colleges who spent most of his career in public school systems. "I don't think the bar is too high."

Sadusky said the expectation today is that students will need some postsecondary classes to find employment.

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"It means a complete rethinking of our educational system and an unprecedented attention to our communities and the economics of our communities," said David Steiner, executive director of the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy.

"What is being told to the 11th-grader is the truth," Steiner said. "What the truth is telling us is that we are woefully underperforming."

For years high school graduates attending public colleges in Maryland have taken a math and English placement test, usually the Accuplacer. When the results come back, about half of students are confronted with a cruel surprise: High school didn't adequately prepare them and they will have to take remedial classes before they can take more rigorous college courses.

Some students struggle in those classes and eventually leave college in debt and without a degree. Setting higher standards in high school, educators believe, will leave far fewer students needing to take remedial classes in college, saving time and money.

"I think you will see a huge decline in the number of students needing developmental or remedial courses," said Henry Johnson, chief academic officer at the Maryland Department of Education.

In 2013, the latest year for which data is available, 70 percent of Maryland students entering community college and 21 percent of those at four-year public institutions needed remedial education.

Meanwhile, school districts are scrambling to prepare. School officials must sort through test score data over the summer, adapt lessons and schedule seniors into new classes this fall.

For some students, it may come as a surprise that their schedules are changing and they need remedial coursework. Others may question whether it's necessary to be college-ready if they plan to look for jobs immediately following graduation.

Deeksha Walia, who until last week was the student member of the Baltimore County school board, supports higher standards for seniors but said that students and their parents need to be better informed of what's coming. She said she was unaware of the new requirement.

"Students are not going to know, and when they get their schedules in August they are going to be upset they can't take the classes they want to take," said Walia, who will be a freshman at the University of Maryland College Park in the fall.

Maryland State Education Association President Betty Weller, who represents the majority of the state's teachers, also supports raising standards for students but said administrators can't continue to do so without providing the resources needed to teach at a higher level. She said some districts are confronting "opportunity gaps" and communities beset by poverty and violence.

"Do they have a strong curriculum and strong teachers? Are there counselors and mental health professionals?" Weller said. "Our hands are tied if we don't have the tools we need."

Steiner said the Baltimore school district, in particular, faces a huge undertaking in ensuring that all graduates meet the new standard. Some students are years behind in academic performance, he said, and schools will need the help of parents and community leaders to meet the new goal.

Baltimore-area school administrators said they are still trying to determine a full and accurate count of the number of students who will need remedial coursework. They also said they are working with schools to make sure parents and students are informed.

Maryland schools have gradually implemented higher standards, starting with the adoption of the more rigorous Common Core curriculum several years ago.

Then the General Assembly passed a law requiring school systems to test students by the end of 11th grade using the SAT, ACT, Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, Accuplacer or the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) tests.

Students will need to attain a certain score on one of those tests to place out of remedial classwork. Students who are on track to get a career certification will have an alternative test, but the state is still determining what that will be.

Passing remedial classes isn't required for graduation; however, the state does require all high schoolers to pass four state standardized tests to get a diploma.

School systems are relying on different tests.

Baltimore County requires every student to take the SAT, so school administrators decided to use the results to determine college readiness. Anne Arundel gave many of its students the Accuplacer, a College Board test. Howard, Carroll and Baltimore City will use a variety of tests to measure student performance.

The score that students need on those tests set a high bar.

A student would have to get a 500 on both the math and verbal sections of the old SAT, which has since been updated, to place out of the remedial coursework. The average score statewide on that test in 2015 was 485 for math and 481 for critical reading. On an Advanced Placement test, a score of three or better would be needed.

A student would have to score a four or five on the PARCC English 11, a test given for the first time last spring. Only 40 percent of sophomores could pass the 10th-grade version of that test in 2015.

Community college administrators, school district superintendents and state Department of Education officials met recently and agreed on the score students must get on each of the standardized tests to be considered ready for college-level classes. Those scores are supposed to be equivalent to one another.

Baltimore County is setting up separate transition classes with curriculum written by Community College of Baltimore County professors in collaboration with some county high school teachers. Superintendent Dallas. Dance said that he'd like to test students earlier to determine if they need more intensive work in high school.

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"Maryland is going in the right direction," Dance said. "We want to make sure that we are preparing students for the college experience before they get there."

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In Baltimore City, students who don't meet the English standard will be in transition classes and those who need to work on their math skills will have other options.

Santelises supports the move to higher standards but said she wants to make "sure that initially we aren't cutting off the lifeblood of our students' 11th- and 12th-grade year" by giving them regimented, boring classes.

In Anne Arundel, Howard and Carroll counties, students who have not met the minimum score will be required to do remedial work in their regular English or math classes. Some Harford County seniors will have the option to take a community college-level transition class or do remedial work.

Some students will be given the opportunity to move up to a higher-level math class, such as statistics or calculus, in order to meet the requirement.

Anne Arundel County Superintendent George Arlotto said some administrators were concerned that students would have to drop their popular elective classes in order to take a transition class. So the county plans to use extra class instruction and online modules, created by the local community college, for students to use at home or during the school day to help them catch up. In the middle of the year, he said, the seniors will be retested with Accuplacer.

"I think it is moving in the right direction in setting a high bar," said Arlotto.

Harford County's executive director of curriculum, Susan Brown, agreed but said changes need to begin in elementary and middle school.

"What we are saying here is 'Yes, we are going to tell the truth.' But to do that and not create despair, you are going to have retool the entire system of education throughout all the grade levels," Steiner said.

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