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Christan M. Thomas • Oct 6, 2007 at 12:00 AM

Statistics released last week by Northeast State Technical Community College indicate that a significant number of high school graduates enrolling in the school are not college ready.

Local school systems say, however, that part of the problem may not be that high schools aren’t properly preparing students, but a fundamental disconnect between state expectations for high school students and national/college requirements for being college ready.

“If you (students) take the minimum required for the university diploma (in Tennessee), some of those students will be above that (ACT) cut score (to avoid remedial or developmental courses) and some of them will be below that cut score — even if they’ve done what the state of Tennessee says you need to do to get a high school diploma,” said Kingsport City Schools Superintendent Richard Kitzmiller during a Board of Education meeting. “There is some mismatch between the requirements for a high school diploma and the expectations of college-ready work. That’s something we can encourage — students to take more math — but if the requirements aren’t there, there’s going to always be a fundamental mismatch.”

A report by Northeast State officials last week to the Tennessee Board of Regents showed that out of the 572 high school graduates who entered the community college in the fall of 2004, 61 required remedial learning (for those students working at an eighth-grade level), 334 required developmental work (for those working at a 10th-grade level) and 177 were college ready. Roughly 5 percent of those students requiring remedial work have since graduated from Northeast State, compared to 12.6 percent of the developmental students and 37.9 percent of the college-ready students.

The four-year trend report showed that 70 percent of students enrolled at Northeast State between 2003 and 2006 required either remedial or developmental work.

Statewide, the numbers are similar.

An October 2006 report on the TBR Web site, titled “Educating Tennessee,” estimates that approximately 30 percent to 40 percent of all students who enroll in college are not prepared to do college work successfully and that many require some form of remedial or developmental coursework. The report said that 97 percent of those TBR students requiring remedial or developmental work are enrolled in community colleges.

The six TBR universities — including East Tennessee State University — no longer offer remedial classes, since as of 2002 approximately 3 percent of students enrolled at those universities were working at or below an eighth-grade level.

To avoid initial placement in remedial or developmental courses at a TBR college or university, students (up to age 20 for Northeast State) must score at least a 19 on the ACT subtests.

That’s where the discrepancy between state standards and college expectations can be seen.

Take ACT data for 2007 graduates on the math subtest, for example. Currently, the state of Tennessee requires that students take three units of math to graduate — algebra I, geometry and algebra II for the university diploma; foundations I, foundations II and algebra I for the technical diploma.

ACT student self-reporting data comparing test-takers’ scores versus their course pattern showed that Tennessee students who took algebra I, geometry and algebra II scored an average of 17.4 on the math subtest. Nationally, students who took that course pattern scored an average of 17.9 on the math subtest. Both scores are below the score of 19 required to avoid remedial or developmental courses when entering a TBR college or university.

The scores for students who reported taking those three classes and another advanced math course jumped to 20.5 in Tennessee and 20.4 nationally. In addition, students who took algebra I, algebra II, geometry and trigonometry had an average score of 20.5 in Tennessee and 20.3 nationally. Each additional math course taken showed point gains on the average subtest score.

“Adding more courses, at least for the current population, certainly increases your scores,” Kitzmiller said. “What we all know is adding courses, requirements for students who are not ready may have a different (effect), so we’ll have to work through that. Exposure is part of it. ... It’s a combination of the characteristics of the students, but it also is a characterization of what you are taught in class does make a difference.”

Similar patterns can be seen in each of the other ACT subtests.

Tennessee students who took the minimum four core English courses had an average subtest score of 20.4. Those who took the core and an additional course averaged 23.2. In science, Tennessee students who took the minimum core requirements had an average score of 19.9 on the science subtest. Those who reported taking general science, biology, chemistry and physics had an average score of 22.2.

The State Board of Education is currently working on revising standards to include more rigorous coursework for students — including requiring four years of math. They have also recently added additional assessment requirements to help determine students’ college readiness at an earlier stage.

These changes, say local school system officials, could go a long way to closing the college-readiness gap.

“If it works as it appears to work now, if we can get more students in the pipeline to take more math courses and harder math courses, we should be reducing drastically (the number of) those who are not ready for college-level work,” Kitzmiller said. “But there are some big ‘if’s’ in that equation.”

“The bottom line to me is this: We (school systems and colleges/universities) are in this together,” said Sullivan County Schools Assistant Director of Schools Jack Barnes. “We need to try to help each other to do what we need to do to get it right. Not only our two types of institutions, but also at the state level (we need to figure out) what needs to be done and how to prepare students. Once we know exactly what they need, we’ll prepare them as best we can.”

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