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Many grads not ready for college

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Nearly a third of Indiana’s students aren’t ready for the rigors of college courses and have to pay tuition for classes that cover what they should have learned in high school.

In 2011, about 31 percent of the 33,936 high school graduates who enrolled in public colleges throughout the state needed to take some kind of remedial course in math or English during their freshman year. In Johnson County, 266 graduates, or about 35 percent of the 770 students who graduated from the six public high schools and enrolled in public colleges, needed to take math or language arts courses during their freshman year.

Those numbers come from an annual report from the Indiana Commission for Higher Education tracking how well high schools are preparing students for college. The report doesn’t include the numbers or rates of students who go on to attend private or out-of-state colleges.

At Greenwood Community High School, the commission’s report shows that 29 percent of students needed to take refresher courses in math and language arts. But when private and out-of-state college rates are factored in, that rate likely is closer to 40 percent, said Rick Ahlgrim, Greenwood’s director of secondary education.

When students have to take courses to reinforce their math and language arts skills, that means they or their parents are paying hundreds or even thousands of dollars for classes that don’t count toward a degree and could keep them in college longer.

“That’s a big concern for us,” Ahlgrim said.

The rates of graduates from other area high schools who needed refresher courses in college ranged from about 26 percent at Center Grove to about 62 percent at Edinburgh.

Earlier this year, lawmakers approved a bill requiring the Indiana Department of Education and the State Board of Education to create guidelines high schools can use to recognize earlier students whose math and English skills won’t meet college standards. Under the new law, the state agencies also can create recommendations on how high schools can better prepare students for the end-of-course assessments they have to pass to graduate, as well as for the standards of college courses.

Locally, school officials are looking for solutions.

That means spending more time identifying students who have failed or are at risk for failing the Algebra I and English 10 end-of-course assessments and spending more time teaching those students lessons they don’t understand. But meeting state standards isn’t enough. Students need to be able to demonstrate they can meet college standards by the time they graduate, Ahlgrim said.

And that means high schools need to start offering more Advanced Placement or dual credit, college-level courses and enrolling more students in the courses earlier, Ahlgrim said.

“It is our intention to take another look at the possible programs that will continue to build intensity and rigor into the 11th- and 12th-grade experience,” Ahlgrim said.

At Franklin Community High School, incoming freshmen will take a course on college and career readiness to get them thinking about the kinds of professions they’re interested in and the work they’ll have to do to find jobs in those fields. Those are the kinds of questions honors students typically think about their freshman year, and Franklin Principal Doug Harter wants all students thinking about their futures earlier.

Students should start working harder if they know sooner what colleges and careers will expect of them, he said.

“We want to make sure we do a little bit better job of articulating a career pathway,” Harter said.

Franklin also is expanding a program Harter started last semester to better prepare students for the end-of-course assessments. Next school year, students who have failed or who are at risk of failing the Algebra I or English 10 end-of-course assessments will spend time each week with teachers from both subjects reviewing the lessons they don’t understand.

Harter said his hope is that once students have mastered those lessons, Franklin’s end-of-course assessment passing rate, which has been at 68 percent for the past two years, will start to rise. And if more students have a stronger understanding of algebra and English concepts, then they’ll need less help refreshing those skills in college, he said.

About 40 percent of the 2011 Franklin graduates who went to public Indiana colleges needed remediation courses as freshmen. And Ahlgrim said he believes 40 percent is the overall rate of Greenwood graduates attending state, out-of-state and private colleges who need math and language arts help during their freshman year.

Right now, part of the problem is that students don’t feel as much pressure to keep their math and language arts skills sharp after their sophomore year, Ahlgrim said. By the time students are juniors, many have passed the end-of-course exams they need to graduate. And while Indiana requires students to continue taking math courses through all four years of high school, the standards in those courses aren’t necessarily going to be as high as a college’s standards, Ahlgrim said.

So if students aren’t taking college-level math courses, they can’t guarantee they’re going to meet college-level math standards, Ahlgrim said.

Students at Whiteland Community High School will have at least one new incentive encouraging them to take more college-level, Advanced Placement courses next school year: cash. That’s because Whiteland will begin participating in a program sponsored by National Math and Science Initiatives that pays students earning high scores on the Advanced Placement end-of-year exams in math, English and science.

Students who take and pass the Advanced Placement exam will earn $100 for each exam passed, and so will those students’ teachers. Teachers also will qualify for a $1,000 bonus if they reach goals they’ve set for the number of students who take and pass the Advanced Placement exams.

During the 2011-12 school year, 249 Whiteland students took Advanced Placement courses, and 107 passed the AP exam, meaning they earned college credit for the course. Schilawski’s goal is to get 499 students taking AP courses, with 190 passing the exams. Students who pass the exams will start their freshman year having already earned college credits, saving themselves or their parents thousands of dollars.

And even a student who doesn’t pass the Advanced Placement exam has still spent an entire year taking a college-level course, meaning they’re less likely to need refresher courses and more likely to succeed in college-level classes, Schilawski has said.

Encouraging students to take more college-level courses while they’re still in high school is exactly what Greenwood wants to start doing, precisely because it prepares students for college and saves them time and money, Ahlgrim said.

Greenwood director of guidance Bill Ronk has said he plans to increase the number of dual-credit courses offered at Greenwood — which are college-level courses similar to Advanced Placement courses, except students don’t have to pass an exam to earn the college credits. Families don’t always know how many of these courses are available or how helpful they can be for students, and that’s something Greenwood wants to change by getting more information about the courses to families earlier, Ahlgrim said.

Students will be more likely to sign up for the college-level courses if guidance counselors explain to them as freshmen or sophomores how the courses can prepare them for college and save them money, Ahlgrim said.

“Who’s going to say ‘no’ to that?” he said.

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