In Baltimore County, thousands of high school seniors are being required to take remedial math and English courses. And it’s not just in the city’s schools, where estimates are that around 50% of students will need remedial coursework; in the more well-to-do suburbs, the percentage is only slightly lower: 40%. The latest data, from 2013, shows that 70% of Maryland students entering community college and over 20% of students at a 4-year public institution needed remedial education.
The implications for this are enormous: the financial impact alone is huge, particularly to those with a weaker financial safety net. College lasts an extra year, or the financial burden can’t be sustained and results in an unfinished degree and a debt that is impossible to erase. In a larger sense, this suggests a betrayal of trust by Baltimore County’s public education system to its citizens and families.
How could this happen? There are multiple causes, and unfortunately, none are unique to Baltimore County. It just may be the perfect storm.
First, teachers are still in the midst of making the transition to the Common Core State Standards, a set of standards much more ambitious than states’ standards under NCLB. Because the CCSS leaves a lot of the details of the curriculum, including instructional strategies, to the teachers, many educators feel overwhelmed and feel unprepared. Teachers have needed additional and sustained training and support, which Maryland—and many other states—has struggled to provide. And regardless of the support, change takes time.
Secondly, in 2013, the Maryland General Assembly got involved, legally requiring students to attain a minimum score on a menu of tests– ACT, SAT, AP, IB, the PARCC, and the test used previously by colleges, the Accuplacer—to place out of remedial coursework. The obvious flaw is that students who have test anxiety or simply a bad day will have a test that result that doesn’t accurately reflect their competence. A more fundamental flaw is that there is scant evidence that high scores on those tests predict success in college. It’s a simplistic, blunt, and inaccurate solution to a complex problem. But that’s often what legislatures do.
And then there is the disconnect between high schools’ and colleges’ expectations. [I’m assuming that the legislature set these test requirements with support from the colleges considering that the tests include ACT, SAT, and AP, and it’s the post-secondary folks who loudly bemoan unprepared high school graduates.]
The 2013 law doesn’t require students to pass the tests in order to graduate. While the State sets course requirements for graduation, it’s usually up to each school to decide what it takes to pass a class—the competence a student must show to receive the course credit. The result of this disconnect is that a student can meet the teacher’s standard to pass a class, but not meet the State’s standard: passing the particular test. Tests are used to essentially overturn a student’s grade (the student passed the college-prep course, but didn’t pass the test). Interestingly, the policies aren’t logically consistent. The converse case—that a student doesn’t receive passing grades or graduate, but does pass the test—doesn’t allow a student to graduate. Shouldn’t it?
And finally, the grading approaches used by schools and teachers send mixed messages about academic competency. When a grade is based on doing the homework, getting extra credit for bringing in a signed syllabus, or getting points for following directions, a student’s grade is inflated. When a student loses points or receives a zero for handing in an assignment late, gets a low grade because another member of his group project didn’t fulfill his responsibility, or has a grade averaged over time that hides how much was learned, the grade is deflated. In most classrooms, when teachers include non-academic behaviors or unfair scoring practices, the grades students receive don’t accurately reflect their academic preparation for the next level. I see so many schools graduate students with a “college preparatory diploma” that only means students earned sufficient points, not that students are actually prepared for college.
Again, these dynamics aren’t unique to Baltimore County; too many school systems misuse tests, haven’t sufficiently supported teachers, aren’t aligned with colleges, and have inaccurate and unfair grading practices. I’m sure that the educators in Baltimore County have the best intent and are working very hard under difficult conditions. Perhaps we can be motivated to address the causes individually when we see the impact of them collectively.