November 5, 2014
By David Driscoll and Gary Kaplan
We often pride ourselves on the fact that our public schools lead the country in student achievement. We point to ever-increasing MCAS scores, favorable international performance, and historic high school graduation rates. Those achievements are laudable and a tribute to the efforts of many — primarily teachers, principals and the students themselves.
But the banner headlines overshadow a troubling subhead, one that state and federal education leaders all have underscored. Each year, according to state Higher Education Commissioner Richard M. Freeland, 11,000 Massachusetts high school graduates cannot pass the entrance exams to community colleges and end up in noncredit remedial courses. Worse yet, 90 percent of those young people drop out without a degree, often after using up their financial aid and even taking out loans.
The direct cost of remedial college courses to students in our state is over $30 million each year. The indirect cost in lost earnings for future workers and lost productivity for Massachusetts companies is incalculable.
The most maddening part of this waste of human resources is that it is preventable. The academic skills needed to pass the college placement test currently in use, the Accuplacer, could and should be mastered by the vast majority of students while still in high school.
We make that claim because students are in fact mastering those skills in a dozen high schools that are taking advantage of the JFY NetWorks Accuplacer preparation program. The program is simple. We administer the Accuplacer and use the results to provide individualized online instruction right in the classroom as an integral component of the student’s curriculum. Whether the class is algebra, geometry, English comp or literature, the Accuplacer’s review of fundamental skills supports the student’s work in the course as well as preparing for college.
This past year, thanks to the generosity of the Theodore Edson Parker Foundation, JFYNetWorks conducted a successful pilot program at Lowell High School in conjunction with Middlesex Community College. Middlesex staff came to the school and helped JFYNetWorks administer the Accuplacer. Middlesex also opened its Lowell campus for overflow testing sessions. 249 Lowell High School students improved their Accuplacer scores. The gains were sufficient to eliminate $69,000 worth of non-credit remedial courses at MCC. Instead of spending precious college funds on non-credit courses, these students were able to invest their education dollars in courses that lead to a degree.
JFYNetWorks has recently been awarded a generous grant by the Legislature to conduct Accuplacer preparation programs in high schools that want to clear the path to college for their students. The programs can begin as early as junior year, after students have passed MCAS, or in senior year when college looms on the horizon. We look to schools and teachers to integrate the equivalent of one class period per week of Accuplacer skill training into the math and English class schedule.
This year, for the first time, the Department of Elementary and Secondary Education (DESE) has published the rates of assignment to remedial courses in state colleges for graduates of every high school in the Commonwealth. You can see just how serious the problem is across this state, high school by high school, by clicking on DART and scrolling down to Success After High School.
Our MCAS scores and our graduation rates are worthy achievements. But the discovery that 11,000 high school graduates each year need remediation in community college should be shocking to all of us. Worse, it is disheartening to our young people and damaging to their academic and career futures.
We encourage school administrators, teachers, parents and students to recognize and address this college readiness gap. Twenty years ago, Massachusetts educators set themselves the task of bringing all students up to a basic high school skill level by using the measurement tool of MCAS. Now our young people face a higher hurdle. We can do it again. As Lowell High School has shown, we can help students clear the next hurdle by using the tool of Accuplacer to identify and teach the skills they need to soar over the hurdle of college readiness. We owe it to them. We owe it to the future of Massachusetts.
About the authors: David Driscoll is a former Massachusetts Commissioner of Education. Gary Kaplan is executive director of JFYNetWorks.