January 17, 2013

Report: Maine grads more ready for college than others

Data shows less of a need for remedial work, adding a new debate point on school quality.

By Noel K. Gallagher ngallagher@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

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"More important than how we compare to the rest of the country is how we're doing for Maine students," he said.

Education researchers say interest in remediation has increased nationwide in recent years, for many reasons.

With budgets tight for states and schools, remediation is an additional financial burden for all parties. People expect all high school graduates to be college-ready.

Policymakers argue that tax money supports education through 12th grade, then subsidizes students again when higher-education institutions provide remedial courses.

Nationwide, it costs $1 billion to $3 billion a year to provide remedial instruction, according to the Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College.

In 2011, a report by the University of Maine System showed that remedial courses cost students $1.5 million. In the Maine Community College System, the annual cost is about $400,000, almost all of it paid by the students.

In another study, the U.S. Department of Education found that fewer than one in four students who take remedial courses earn degrees or transfer from two-year to four-year institutions.

Maine's public colleges released this year's freshman data under a new state law that requires them to report remedial course numbers every year. In the future, the data will show whether those students stayed in school.

One education expert said the high school numbers are a good starting point to study why some graduates aren't ready for college, but it's too early to legislate policy based on the data.

David Silvernail, director of the Center for Education Policy, Applied Research and Evaluation at the University of Southern Maine, noted that one of Maine's best high schools, Cape Elizabeth, sent six freshmen to the community colleges in the fall, and all of them needed remedial courses.

Of the 18 Cape Elizabeth graduates who entered the University of Maine System, none needed remedial courses.

Also, Silvernail noted, those 24 graduates represent only a fraction of about 100 Cape Elizabeth students who went on to college, because most didn't go to any of Maine's public colleges.

"The governor loves any evidence that says the schools aren't working," said Silvernail. "Unfortunately, that can't help move things forward. People just get upset.

"If I was a policymaker, I'd say we're above average but that's not where we want to be, that's not good enough," said Silvernail.

Kilby-Chesley agreed that the high school data doesn't fully explain why some graduates may need remedial courses in college.

"There are some children who have the ability to go on to higher education, but for a whole variety of reasons they aren't ready," she said. "Maybe because of their own priorities, or they aren't terribly motivated. There are a lot of scenarios."

For example, Portland High School sent 32 students to the University of Maine System, and seven needed remedial courses. The school sent 29 students to the community college system, and 23 needed remedial courses.

Deering High School in Portland sent 37 students to the University of Maine System, and six needed remedial courses; the school sent 34 students to the community colleges, and 28 needed remedial courses.

At Thornton Academy in Saco, 32 of the 48 graduates who went to community colleges needed remedial work, and six of the 56 who went to the University of Maine System needed it.

Administrators at Thornton noted that in recent years, the graduating class has grown 12 percent, and the school has increased the number of students going to college by 22 percent. Also, the school has recently started paying for students to take college placement exams, and is encouraging its students to go to college.

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