If Joe Mara had studied harder in high school, a lot harder, he thinks he might have been admitted to an Ivy League school. But he floated along, and now he's a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts in Boston.
"I was a slacker back then," admits the criminal-justice major. "I did as little as I could - just enough to get by."
Fortunately, he says, this state university campus, with its lobster-boat vistas of Boston Harbor, was one place he could be admitted without being hassled over grades. He's studying hard now, he adds.
But there is trouble afoot for would-be freshmen with Mr. Mara's formerly complacent outlook. Massachusetts last week took the national lead in mandating entrance tests for applicants in the fall of 1999 and exit tests for graduates of its public colleges and universities.
The goal is to ensure that applicants to state schools meet minimum standards for reading, writing, and math - and that college graduates meet certain levels before getting a diploma. Officials also hope testing will help raise academic achievement at public colleges, shift remedial classes to community colleges, and make high schools more accountable.
"There is a move by states to say, 'Look, we don't want to put students in college that need remediation - we want the high schools to do it,' " says Chris Pipho, director of state relations at the Education Commission of the States in Boulder, Colo.
Indeed, Massachusetts is hardly alone in its concern. Many states, including Massachusetts, already use SAT or ACT scores, along with grades and placement tests, to determine whether remedial help is required. But few, if any, use the results to restrict admission or require an exit test for all their four-year schools.
Beside Massachusetts, only Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia, and Texas include any testing of basic competency for college-level students beyond placement tests, officials say.
Both Oklahoma and Florida test applicants to state schools. Florida also tests about 40 percent of juniors to ensure minimum competency. Others are excused if they achieve minimum grades in selected courses. Oklahoma requires exit testing, although the test is determined by each institution. Neither Oklahoma nor Florida has a common state-wide exit test for would-be graduates, as Massachusetts has proposed.
The backdrop for the Massachusetts effort is political furor over the 30 percent of incoming freshmen who do not have adequate reading, writing, or math skills to do college work. The number of freshmen at four-year colleges who may take remedial classes has been capped at 10 percent, dropping to 5 percent next year. And state officials are not at all apologetic about drawing the line.
"From coast to coast, the quality of academic excellence in our public colleges and universities is going down," said James Carlin, chairman of the Board of Higher Education, in a recent interview. "If a student is not prepared for four-year college or university work, that student should not be in the institution."
Standards and testing for higher education have lagged behind in part because most states focus on K-12 standards and testing. Some also oppose basic competency testing as a strike against the ability of minorities to earn a degree.
In some cases, earlier attempts at stringency have been watered down. Florida, for example, used to require that all students take a competency test before proceeding with their junior year and upper-level courses. Two years ago, however, the state legislature exempted all students who achieved "certain grades in certain courses," says James Mau, vice chancellor of academic affairs for the State of Florida University System, office of the Board of Regents. Today only about 40 percent of all students - those not exempted - take the test, says Tom Fisher, head of Florida's assessment program.
Still, some regions are trying to boost public higher education. This spring, for instance, trustees at City University of New York (CUNY) approved cutting remedial classes out of its 11 four-year colleges. Students must pass placement exams in reading, writing, and math before attending a four-year CUNY college.
Back in Massachusetts, students with adequate GPAs or SAT scores will be excused from the reading or writing entrance tests. But a common math test will be required of all would-be freshmen.
The tough new regimen may hit roadblocks with individual college and university presidents. A statement on behalf of the University of Massachusetts and its president, William Bulger, was tepid, offering only that it will give "respectful consideration" to the plan. Most students interviewed by the Monitor were less than enthusiastic.
"It just puts more stress on students and gives them less motivation, not more," says Jorge Mendez, a sophomore majoring in business management at the UMass Boston campus, he says: "It's going to make students go somewhere else - to some other state. They won't want ... that hassle."
But Mr. Mara doesn't agree. Glancing wistfully out to sea, he considers what might have been had he put his shoulder to the wheel in high school. "If I knew now what I didn't know then, I would have worked harder," he says, adding, "maybe I would have been going to Harvard."