Sunday, March 7, 2004

College readiness problem debated

Educators exploring ways to boost success rate in N.Ky.

By Karen Gutierrez
The Cincinnati Enquirer

Kentucky students should take tougher classes, focus on college entrance exams and realize the four high school years are critical to success in college, say educators.

The region's high school principals and college officials, prompted by Northern Kentucky University's plan to raise admission standards, have put the issue front and center: Why do so many students flounder in college, and what can be done?

Even the popular Kentucky scholarship program, which bases awards on high school grades, backfires for some students, principals say.

To boost their averages and qualify for more money, some students take easy courses that don't necessarily prepare them for higher education.

NKU is raising standards in 2005 in part because nearly half its freshmen each year - about 920 students - must take remedial classes covering material they should have learned in high school. They earn no college credit for the courses, which cost about $390 a semester. About 42 percent of such students drop out before their sophomore years.

In interviews and public forums, principals have cited various reasons for the problem.

Among them:

• Kentucky's annual accountability testing essentially ends in the 11th grade. While juniors take required courses to prepare for tests in math, science, social studies and humanities, seniors have much more freedom to choose electives that may not be college-oriented.

• By design, high schools focus more energy on the Kentucky accountability test than on college-entrance exams like the ACT. Students who do OK on the first may bomb on the second.

• Access to college has improved and many students now attend whose parents did not. These families need more guidance in college preparation.

• Up to this point, nonexistent admission standards at NKU have led students to believe they can succeed there no matter what they do in high school.

• There is a perception that technical schools or two-year colleges are inferior routes to success. Educators should work together to boost the image of schools like Gateway Technical & Community College.

• The college scholarship program, Kentucky Educational Excellence Scholarship, rewards students for good grades instead of course difficulty.

Students need a 2.5 grade point average their freshman year of high school to qualify for the base amount of $500, which is spread over four years at any public or private college in Kentucky.

The amount increases with each year of high school, depending on grades.

"Basically, a lot of students do decide to take easier courses to try to make an A, to beef up their KEES money," says Dawn Hinton, a guidance counselor at Conner High School in Hebron.

That concern is part myth, part reality, and no one has done a verifiable study to determine where the truth lies, says Joe McCormick, executive director of the Kentucky Higher Education Assistance Authority.

Only the Legislature can make changes tying KEES to course difficulty.

McCormick says Kentucky's entire education system ought to get tougher on students.

"It's a disservice for us to tolerate less than what we know people need to have in order to survive in this economy," he says.

In Northern Kentucky, high schools are trying various steps.

Boone County High added a math requirement this year.

Ludlow High School is directing teachers to spend more time on ACT-style test questions next year.

And Bellevue High School is arranging for this year's seniors to tour NKU with Bellevue graduates who are freshmen at the college.

Bellevue Principal Marian Sumner says she's excited about the growing sense of cooperation among colleges and secondary schools in Northern Kentucky.

"I think it's wonderful that we've started a dialogue," she says.


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