Florida Students May Face Tougher Standards in School

Lawmakers cite cost of remedial education, critics warn of exclusion

FLORIDA freshman Janice Jones says she plans to get an associate degree at Tallahassee Community College and then transfer to a four-year state university. But first, the Orlando native has to play catch-up.

This semester Ms. Jones is taking three remedial classes: Algebra, English, and reading. She is among 50 percent of the 10,000 students on this campus who need to take college prep courses before they can take classes like English Lit or Accounting 101.

The story is the same at Florida's 27 other community colleges, where on average 70 percent of students must first sign up for the very basics. It's costing the state $53 million a year and frustrating some state lawmakers, who say some of that money should be targeted for other educational needs.

"We have an alarming amount of remedial education, and we need to start developing strategies to reduce the need for it," says Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D), a Florida state representative and chairwoman of the House Higher Education Committee.

But some here worry that state efforts to reduce remedial ed - and plans to toughen high-school standards - could deny access to better jobs to those students who can't meet the standards. A major role of community colleges is to teach remedial ed, argues Chris McNally, a college prep math teacher at TCC.

Florida is not the only state grappling with this issue. Efforts to scale back remedial education at the college level have gained momentum recently from California to South Carolina. Driving the debate are cost-cutting legislators who need to trim budgets and the feeling that high schools need to be doing a better job of turning out college-ready graduates.

"Everyone seems to be agreeing that we are doing too much of it," says Ansley Abraham, head of the doctoral scholars program at the Southern Regional Education Board in Atlanta.

Most states are trying to eliminate or restrict remedial education at four-year colleges. The 320,000-student California State University system this month approved a plan to reduce the percentage of students needing remedial ed from about 45 percent to 10 percent in 11 years. The City University of New York last year tightened admissions requirements, so that students unable to complete remedial courses in one year will be sent to community colleges. South Carolina, Texas, Massachusetts, and Virginia have been considering moving remedial courses from four-year to two-year colleges.

In Florida, the debate is the same but the situation is different, because lawmakers are trying to tackle it at the community-college level. State universities here don't teach remedial ed. They accept only 17 percent of the state's high-school graduates. More than two-thirds of students first go to community colleges and transfer to the four-year institutions.

Currently Florida's 325,000-student community-college system has an "open door" policy, admitting anyone with a high school diploma. Legislators say they want to keep the door ajar but make some fundamental changes from the K-12 to the college level. Proposals include increasing the minimum high school graduation standard from a 1.5 grade point average to a 2.0; requiring high-school students to pass Algebra; and administering college-placement tests in the 10th grade to determine what students' deficiencies are. Community colleges and high schools would also develop strategies to reduce remedial education.

Community-college administrators agree something needs to be done because of the baby boomlet tidal wave that will reach college age in the next decade. The state is expected to go from around 90,000 public high-school graduates in 1991 to 140,000 by 2010. That translates into more students as education dollars are expected to shrink.

Some ask if the Florida Legislature's higher standards will really help. "We've got kids in our program who tell me they've had Algebra I, Algebra II, and Trigonometry," says Mr. McNally. "If you've had that, and if you've learned anything, you shouldn't be in college prep. It makes me wonder who taught them."

McNally adds that although the state may try to reduce remedial ed, there will still be a large population that needs it, especially students who have been out of high school for several years and must take refresher courses. Dorothy Moore, a TCC student, fits that profile.

"I've been out of school for 14 years and have forgotten a lot," says Ms. Moore, a mother of three who is pursuing a college education in order to get a better job. "The prep courses are important. They're giving me a chance."

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