A Big Truth Buried in Higher High School Graduation Rates

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Whatever the number of “functionally illiterate” adults in the United States, these adults are sometimes graduating from our high schools. At worst, America’s lowest readers cannot manage large chunks of everyday life. Five-year balloon mortgage payments wait to ambush them, as they make lower monthly payments they only partly understand, while they pay thousands extra for a $26,000 car financed at a high rate whose implications they can’t compute, even with a calculator.

According to officials from City University in New York, a full 10,700 students –  or 79.3 percent of applicants – failed a test to enter community college without remedial classes the previous year, and were therefore required to study basic skills they should have learned in high school.1 That’s more than three in four entering students! This increase occurred during the full force of NCLB, a sobering reminder that best intentions may not produce even mediocre results when clumsily executed. In the meantime, remedial courses continue to become a growing part of community college coursework at New York’s City University and other community colleges.

Almost all students arriving at community colleges take a skills assessment in math, reading, and writing. If they pass, students are categorized as college-ready and can freely pick classes, subject to other enrollment restrictions such as prerequisites. Other students are labeled “developmental” or “remedial,” and these students must take classes and tutoring specifically designed to get them ready to function in a regular college classroom. Students may have to work through multiple levels of remediation—up to five levels in some cases – quarter by quarter or semester by semester. 2,

We are not talking a remediation course or two, although stronger students will get by with that extra, remedial course or two: For some students, though, we are talking a full remediation curriculum. In the time that it takes for stronger students to get an associate degree, other students are getting ready to start that associate degree program.

Remedial requirements often surprise new community college students. After all, these students graduated from their high schools. Under bright lights, with pomp and ceremony, they walked across a stage and picked up their high school diplomas, shaking the Principal’s hand. When these same students discover that they are facing what may amount to a whole curriculum of remedial coursework, unexpected classes they must complete before they can even begin to accrue actual college credits, I am sure many feel betrayed.

New York City graduation rates have increased dramatically in the recent past – but graduation and learning can too easily be decoupled when the desire to increase graduation rates becomes strong enough.


1 https://nypost.com/2013/03/07/nearly-80-of-city-public-high-school-grads-at-cuny-community-colleges-require-remediation-for-english-or-math/

2https://www2.ed.gov/PDFDocs/college-completion/07-developmental-education-in-community-colleges.pdf Developmental Education in Community Colleges, Thomas Bailey and Sung-Woo Cho