ON THE December day the State Board of Education took up the weighty matter of high school exit tests - when they will count for graduation and what the schools will do about the many students expected to fail - Sylvester E. McKay paid his first visit to the seventh-floor boardroom on West Baltimore Street.
McKay, president of Baltimore City Community College, waited patiently and testified briefly. He said his school needs to provide remedial courses in math and reading to 95 percent of its new students. More than 3,000 of 10,000 BCCC students each semester, he said, are in expensive remedial classes, many learning the basic skills they missed in high school.
The majority of students in these catch-up courses hold Maryland high school diplomas, which means they completed a prescribed number of "core" courses in English, math and other subjects. Yet a 2002 report from the Maryland Higher Education Commission showed nearly half of the students who took those math courses in high school needed remediation in the state's community colleges, as did 25 percent of those whose transcripts said they passed high school English and reading.
That's why McKay was invited to testify: The high school diploma in Maryland and across the country is a meaningless piece of paper if it doesn't signify real accomplishment. "There's a chronic lack of preparedness," says Ronald A. Williams, president of Prince George's Community College, of many of the students who come his way.
Williams spends 11 percent of his budget on remediation. He says 40 percent of U.S. undergraduates and a much higher proportion of minorities require at least one remedial course.
Three-quarters of remedial courses are taught at community colleges, which enroll more than half of all U.S. college students. The two-year colleges, says Williams, are in the best position to help struggling students catch up at the lowest cost.
Besides, the four-year public colleges don't want the remedial students, and the independent colleges won't have them. In an era of marketing and "branding," stigma attaches to the remedial student and to remedial programs. Some schools call such courses "developmental" - and insist that the word isn't a euphemism. Harford Community College's remedial programs are "transitional."
Ten states discourage or prohibit four-year universities from offering remedial courses. There's a feeling among some of the state college and university people that "if you can eliminate the folks who draw you down, you can be more excellent," Williams says.
Some, but by no means all, college remedial students feel stigmatized. They receive no college credit for the courses and may not be eligible for financial aid. In some cases, it takes a couple of years before they've worked their way up to college-level instruction, living in a kind of pre-college netherworld.
"If they're in remediation, they're twice as likely to drop out," says Eric Bettinger, an economist at Case Western University in Cleveland who studies less competitive colleges in Ohio. "Where does the negativity come from? Think about it. They arrive on campus and immediately take a placement test. If they need remediation, their first college peer group is the others who failed. The school says, 'Hi, welcome to college. You're remedial.'"
But there's an up side, and it may be the prevailing side. Many remedial programs are quite effective, says Hunter R. Boylan, director of the National Center for Developmental Education in Boone, N.C. Where remedial instructors know what they're doing, Boylan says, students can catch up, and miracles can - and do - happen.
Most people, says Kendra Hamilton, who studied college remediation for the publication Black Issues in Higher Education, "just need a little help getting over the bump."
Hopkins seeking students for summer gifted program
Wanted: A few super-bright Baltimore students with nothing to do this summer, for fully paid study on a college campus with the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth.
Budget cuts, not to mention the No Child Left Behind Act, have clamped a lid on spending for gifted programs. The folks at the 25-year-old Hopkins center figure there are students out there who haven't been reached. Karen Bond, who is leading the search, says the program seeks children in grades two through middle school who have scored at the 97th percentile or higher on standardized tests. Many parents, Bond thinks, may not be aware there are gifted children at the breakfast table.