Last spring, angry parents protested that their kids could not walk across the stage at high school graduation ceremonies because they failed the TAKS test. What should really upset parents is the false notion that every student receiving a diploma is ready for college.
Too many students graduate from high school with insufficient skills to succeed in college, and have to repeat high school material at two- and four-year colleges.
Last year, 35 percent of all freshmen at Texas public higher education institutions had to enroll in at least one remedial education course because they were unprepared for college-level work in math, reading, or writing. This equates to more than 162,000 incoming freshmen expending time and energy on remedial coursework that does not count toward their degree.
ACT, a national college entrance testing company, concluded that a mere 19 percent of this spring’s Texas high school graduates were ready for college-level courses in math, science, reading, and English.
Sending poorly prepared students to college is costly for institutions of higher learning, for students, for taxpayers, and for the economy.
Colleges and universities should not have to spend precious time and resources to re-teach basic skills before students are ready for college-level work.
But during the last academic year, the University of Houston taught remedial math to 924 students, remedial reading to 95, and remedial writing to 172.
San Antonio’s University of the Incarnate Word taught remedial math to 306 students and remedial reading and writing to 230. Even students at one of Texas’ flagship universities, the University of Texas at Austin, needed remedial help. Last year, 113 students needed help with basic math and algebra, 29 with basic reading, and 23 with basic writing.
These numbers demonstrate a wide disconnect between high school preparation and college expectations.
Remedial education makes the attainment of a college degree less likely; in fact, it is the leading predictor that a student will drop out of college. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that only 17 percent of students who enroll in a remedial reading course receive a bachelor’s degree within eight years. In general, less education means lower earnings over a worker’s lifetime.
Remedial education is also a drain on taxpayers. When students take remedial education courses in college, taxpayers wind up paying for the same material to be taught twice. Because taxpayers finance remedial education through local property taxes, state general revenue funds, federal income taxes, and other local taxes, it is difficult to determine the total cost to taxpayers. But last year’s state budget appropriated $206 million to public higher education institutions for the instructional cost of developmental (remedial) education.
Lastly, the large need for remedial education hurts the economy. The Alliance for Excellent Education estimates the nation loses $2.3 billion a year from lost earnings. Other research suggests remedial education costs Texas more than $13.6 billion a year in reduced earning potential, poor worker productivity, increased spending on social programs, and direct costs of remediation.
To restore the value of a high school diploma and ensure that students are college ready, high schools must return their focus to teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. The state should also raise high school standards so that students cannot graduate with deficits in these critical areas.
The goal of every high school should be to prepare all students to be able to enter college or the workforce without the need for remediation, because all of us pay the price when Texas students don’t learn the first time around.
Brooke Dollens Terry is an education policy analyst at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a non-profit, free-market research institute based in Austin.