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What You Don’t Know Can Hurt You
Neha Basnet

June is an exciting time for seniors in high school. It means graduation: a time to embrace memories of the last four years and reflect on the knowledge and experience you’ve gained.

But what if you find out that your high school accomplishments haven’t adequately prepared you for college? With enrollment in remedial classes running high at the City University of New York, many college-bound graduates of New York City high schools are in exactly this boat.

Although our teachers often warn us that a college workload will be tougher than we’re used to, the issue seems much bigger than that. Many students leaving New York public high schools are unprepared for college-level classes because they have not even grasped the material taught in their high school courses. This means public institutions like CUNY must assign students to remedial courses, or classes designed to teach concepts that students were supposed to learn in high school.

The High School-College Gap

Doesn’t that high school diploma mean you’re ready to move on to college?

Not necessarily: It turns out that high schools and colleges often have different expectations. For instance, according to the New York State Education Department, you have earned a Regents diploma if you’ve scored a 65 or higher on all Regents exams. But for college, a 65 does not cut it.

By CUNY standards, a student needs a 75 or higher on the English Regents to move on to college-level courses. A student who doesn’t have this score and doesn’t have at least a 480 on the verbal section of the SAT must take a placement exam before entering CUNY. Without a sufficient grade on that exam, the student will be required to take a remedial class in reading and/or writing. A student needs an 80 or higher on at least one math Regents, or a certain score (about 500) on the math portion of the SAT, to “place out” of remedial math classes.

Given this gap between what it takes to finish high school and what it takes to start college, maybe it’s no surprise that a large number of students fail to measure up to CUNY’s standards. In recent years, the rate of incoming students in CUNY associate’s degree programs who need remedial classes in reading, writing, or math has hovered around 72%. (Some need remediation in all of the above.)

It is not easy to get these students where they need to be, said Dr. Jerry G. Ianni, a math professor at LaGuardia Community College in Queens. “Most students have serious challenges remembering the basic rules of arithmetic. The course is really a refresher, but they aren’t ready for a refresher. They need to learn how to learn,” Ianni told the New York Times in an article published last March.

Math—And More Math

Out of the three subjects CUNY teaches at a remedial level, remedial math is the one that the greatest number of students wind up taking.

Evin Cruz, a student at Borough of Manhattan Community College and former YCteen staff writer, failed his math placement exam by just two points. He found that many of the concepts covered in his remedial class were familiar, yet he struggled with problem-solving.

Though he calls his instructor “probably the most helpful teacher I have had in math,” he still had trouble retaining all his skills come test time. “The work is always easy at first. But when the time came for me to take that test at the end of the year, I didn’t remember everything,” he said.

He failed the final exam, which means he has to take the class again this year. “I have to pass this class in order to get to the regular math in order to graduate,” Evin explained. He’s understandably frustrated, especially since he feels he did well on homework and class work. Yet “when it comes down to it, I have to do my part,” he said. “I have to study harder; I have to pass these classes.”

Evin advises high school students to do everything in their power to get an 80 or higher on their math Regents, since that will let them avoid the stress of the remedial merry-go-round.

Tuition Yes, Credits No!

Remedial courses drain your financial aid money or your own out-of-pocket money, but they do not give any college credit. This causes many freshmen to fall behind on the road to a college degree, and it’s hard to get back on track.

It also helps to explain why only one in four full-time students at CUNY’s community colleges will graduate within six years. (An associate’s degree is meant to take just two years to complete.) “There’s no question that the more remediation a student needs, the less likely they are ever to graduate,” Alexandra W. Logue, executive vice chancellor and provost, told the Times.

Besides placing a financial burden on students, remedial classes can harm a student’s morale. “If you’re ready to start college but you have to sit instead in a class that gives zero college credit.… psychologically, that can be a pretty significant barrier,” said Eric Hofmann, CUNY’s Director for Collaborative Programs and director of the program College Now.

Hofmann told YCteen that the large number of remedial students at CUNY can be explained partly by the fact that more students are enrolling in college—including more GED completers and returning adult students, who tend to fare less well on CUNY’s placement exams. But even looking at New York City high school students alone, he admitted, “I’m concerned about how we’re helping get those students college-ready.”

image by Patricia Battles

Making High School Count

One helpful way to prepare for college is to enroll in College Now, a free program that offers high schoolers college-level classes for both high school and college credit. Hofmann believes College Now should be offered to more high schoolers, since it helps students adjust to the way professors teach, a college workload, and a larger class size.

Unfortunately, he said, many high school students aren’t aware of the opportunity, or “might not be the ones who are recruited at their school.” He added that all high schools should require students to take four years of math, which will send them into college with firmer skills.

Hofmann is also part of an initiative called Graduate NYC, which aims to double the number of CUNY graduates by 2020 through collaboration between CUNY, the city’s Department of Education (DOE), and various community based organizations. And the DOE is taking its own steps to focus high schools on college readiness.

From the DOE, high schools now receive “Where are they now?” reports, which let them know how their alumni at CUNY schools are doing: how many needed remedial classes, how many credits they received, and if they returned for their second year of college. This gives high schools an idea of how effectively they prepare their students for college success.

College Boot Camp

But while college readiness may be a particularly big issue at CUNY’s community colleges, it’s not just there that New York City high school graduates are playing catch-up. Even top private colleges and universities, which accept academically outstanding seniors, frequently require students to attend summer enrichment programs designed to get them up to speed for their freshman year.

Former YCteen writer Nicole Garcia is attending Skidmore College this fall through HEOP (the Higher Education Opportunity Program), which is for academically and financially disadvantaged students. Nicole said the summer prep program her college required her to take was beneficial. “I knew I needed to improve my skills,” she said.

After more than a month of intensive courses in math, writing, and study skills, as well as an introduction to a seminar she’ll be taking in the fall, Nicole feels ready for the challenges ahead. “I never learned so much in five weeks,” she said, describing how she had to read and analyze long passages, do math homework and quizzes daily, and absorb 10-page passages on ancient philosophers in preparation for two exams.

At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology this summer, Marco Salazar participated in a program called Interphase. “I was selected for the program because my high school foundation isn’t very strong, but others can apply,” he explained. At Interphase, Marco took courses in physics, chemistry, mathematics, phys ed, and the humanities; he also got to meet with representatives from companies like Google and Cisco, and received advice on resume-building.

“The work was much harder than high school work,” Marco said. His nightly homework took hours. But like Nicole, he felt he learned much more than in high school, and is confident going into his freshman year.

A Harder Push?

Marco feels his high school didn’t help him reach his full potential “because of its limitations. My school had to focus on trying to get kids up to speed with the basics since many were behind grade level, and rather than focusing on advanced courses it was using its resources to provide students with second, third, and fourth chances at classes,” he said.

Yet Nicole believes she could have been pushed much harder, even without advanced classes: “In math, I never had a quiz or homework. In English class, I never wrote a summary and I wasn’t required to analyze a text closely.”

After her summer program, she has some ideas about what would have worked better: quizzes and feedback on how to develop critical thinking and writing skills. “The teacher must tell the student how to improve instead of just saying, ‘great job!’” she said.

Now Is the Time

If you’re in high school and anxious about your chances of success at CUNY or elsewhere, don’t panic. Instead, work hard and take advantage of whatever resources are provided to you.

Take College Now classes if your school offers them; if it doesn’t, you can still register on the College Now website and, if you meet eligibility requirements, sign up for classes on the CUNY campus. Challenge yourself at every step, recommended Hofmann, by taking the hardest high school classes available (even in your senior year), reading and writing a lot, and applying to the best colleges you think you can get into, especially those with higher graduation rates. (There’s an online College Navigator tool that can help you compare colleges; see p. 17.)

“You’re going to be successful in a school where you have more successful students,” Hofmann said. (On a non-academic note, he emphasizes the huge importance of completing and filing the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, which gives you access to “free money that’s sitting there” for you. The sooner you file after January 1, the more aid you’re likely to receive.)

For help figuring out what college readiness programs are right for you, read "Worried? CUNY Can Help"

This story is part of the media/news literacy series, which is generously supported by the McCormick Foundation.

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