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October 20, 2014

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Basic training: UNLV bucks trend by embracing remedial courses

Starting higher education with a college-level class soon may be the exception, not the rule.

Increasingly, English 101 and Math 101 are no longer the first courses for college freshmen.

During the 1995-96 school year, 44.7 percent of Nevada college freshmen required remedial classes in English or math, for which the state spent $1.8 million.

Nationally, 22 percent of the 726,000 first-time freshmen attending four-year college institutions had to take at least one rememdial course in 1995.

At two-year colleges, remediation figures jump to 29 percent.

By necessity, the definition of college-level work has changed irrevocably -- some would say controversially.

State Senate Majority Leader Bill Raggio, R-Reno, believes the educational system now allows "everyone to achieve at a lower level."

He cites statistics from Nevada's state Board of Education and university system to back up his opinions.

Raggio outlined these deficiencies in a speech to the Senate Finance Committee last month:

* Nevada has spent most of this decade saddled with the nation's highest dropout rate.

* From 1992-94, Nevada ranked 41st in the number of 18- to 24-year-olds who completed high school. More than 16 percent of this group were dropouts.

* In 1994, the graduation rate of Nevada high schools was 67.4 percent of the students who had entered the ninth grade in 1990 -- putting Nevada in 37th place nationally.

* In 1994, just 37.6 percent of Nevada's high school graduates went on to college, compared with the national average of 57.2 percent.

* Nevada fourth-grade students ranked 31st among 41 states in the 1996 mathematics examination.

These are the latest statistics bandied about by legislators and school officials discussing solutions -- and excuses -- for the persistent need for remediation. Like nearly every problem in education and politics, most insist the problem stems from a lack of funding.

But more taxes won't necessarily equate to improved performance, says Sen. Jack Regan, D-Las Vegas, who sits on the Senate Finance Committee with Raggio.

He said public schools have become "a system of moving people along. If you look at accountability, then schools see it as reflecting badly on them if they don't move them along, and it does. So real accountability is hard."

A move by the Massachusetts board of education, however, has piqued his interest. A Boston Globe story last month reported that Chairman John Silber endorsed a proposal to make communities pay for high school students who require remedial help in state universities and colleges.

Regan said the idea has been tossed around by some Nevada legislators. It has only succeeded in "shaking up more people than you could imagine, but the whole point is that we have already paid for this education once. Why should we pay for it again? We should be allowed to send the bill to the school district."

Boston educator Silber said the proposal would stop schools from issuing "fraudulent diplomas."

This fall, however, state colleges and universities in Massachusetts are raising standards, which is expected to turn away more students in need of remediation. Those students then would be forced to begin their education at community colleges, which have open enrollment.

Officials in various states have taken steps to foist sole responsibility for remediation upon community colleges.

At least four states -- Florida, Nebraska, South Carolina and Virginia -- prohibit remedial courses at four-year institutions. Georgia will follow suit by 2001 and California by 2006.

Rather than prohibit remedial courses, at least a dozen states, including Nevada, flatly deny credit for them. The others are Arkansas, California, Hawaii, Illinois, Kentucky, Minnesota, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Virginia and West Virginia.

Next year, Massachusetts will limit remediation to 5 percent of a four-year institution's students; Utah won't fund basic-skills courses at universities; and four-year students in Oregon and Oklahoma will have to pay extra for remedial classes.

No such plan is in the works in Nevada.

Richard Jarvis, chancellor of the University and Community College System of Nevada, said Nevada's population historically has shunned higher education. He balked at the idea of instituting any more barriers to attendance, saying Nevada needs all the help it can get to reach the percentage of college-educated residents enjoyed by the rest of the nation.

Remediation needs in Nevada do not just stem from slow learners.

Karin Ekanger, a school district reading specialist, said students enrolled in remedial classes at the beginning of their college career aren't just those with poor reading skills. They're also the students who made a decision later in high school to pursue college.

"Some kids get on a college prep program early in high school, because that's just the expectation at home," Ekanger said. "There is no question about going on to college. Others who do decide to go to college after the fact face a tougher time.

"They just didn't put in the effort earlier in high school," as was the norm a generation ago, she explained.

Lynda Pearson, a secondary reading teacher on special assignment, agreed: "We're living in a different culture now."

There's less emphasis in the home on the importance of education, she lamented, and much more competition for a student's time outside the classroom.

The bottom line, Pearson explained, is "if you're going to have standards (at colleges) that allow almost anyone to attend, then reality says you have to offer remediation at the college level."

Regan said he'd like to see Nevada institutions stick with higher standards and hold public schools accountable for a lack of basic skills, but acknowledges that wouldn't solve the real problem.

"To be truthful, it (remediation) is a problem that will be forever with us," Regan said. "You can't legislate parental involvement. There's no I.Q. test for marriage or pregnancy."

Stemming the tide of remediation, however, can't be solved with Orwellian theories, experts agree. Realistically, it likely will take more money concentrated on younger students.

Common sense and national studies say that if a student doesn't learn to read early on, the chances for academic success are slim.

"We're on a campaign to get kids to learn to read by the end of the third grade," said Kay Carl, assistant superintendent for elementary education for the Clark County School District.

"If children don't learn to read by then, they're in for major, major problems. If they can't read, that means they can't read a math textbook, they can't do science, they can't do health, they can't do social studies. It affects every other academic area."

Carl also noted that a child who cannot read cannot write, and typically has problems with listening and processing information. The entire communication process is adversely affected, she said.

She insists the school district doesn't have remediation classes for the elementary grades. Instead, she said, "We classify them as programs that are available for students who need an extra push along the way."

Some students getting the "extra push" are referred to special education programs and others are tantamount to remediation.

Carl pointed out these programs are voluntary and are offered as resources to parents. However, the consensus is that if parents were more involved, such programs would be less necessary.

There is no single answer to why some children fall behind academically while others flourish, Pearson said. And despite the proliferation of such programs, there is no foolproof remediation method.

Remediation has become a Band-Aid on a larger social problem.

Lack of parental involvement is a complaint heard from nearly every educator across the nation and is part of the reason for declining test scores in Southern Nevada, according to Judy Costa, head of testing for the school district.

"There's no such thing as too much parental involvement," Costa said. She said involvement means everything from reading regularly to a preschool child to helping a school-age child with homework to voting to paying more tax dollars to fund education.

"(Remediation) programs are very expensive, and I'm not sure every child who needs it gets it," Costa said.

"If you talk to any first- or second-grade teacher, they would say there are at least five kids in their class that could have used Project Life," but a lack of funding excluded those children, she said.

Project Life is just one of the reading remediation programs offered by the school district.

Assemblywoman Barbara Cegavske, R-Las Vegas, agreed that more funding sources must be created to offer remediation to elementary-age students.

She said a statute making school districts pay for remedial education in high school has merit, but countered that it would be impossible to enforce considering the large number of students entering Nevada from other states and across the nation's borders.

Cegavske said as long as the Clark County School District judges that social promotions from one grade to the next should supersede mastering skills, things will never improve.

"There is a reluctance to keep children back," said Carl, assistant superintendent for elementary education. "Research done over 20 years shows no value in holding a child back. A child is developing physically and if you place a child who is a large child in the second grade, and chronologically that child should be in the fifth grade, all you've done is make that kid miserable."

That child will likely be the subject of taunts and jeers for the rest of his or her school life, Carl said.

The problem then becomes one of self-esteem.

She reasoned that children mature at different rates and there's a good chance a child who at one time had difficulty academically will catch up with his or her peers in later grades.

Compared with other states boasting extensive higher education systems, Nevada's problems may seem minor. Other states make the $1.8 million Nevada spends in remedial college classes look minuscule.

Florida lawmakers fork over $50 million annually to offer remediation classes at about a dozen state-funded higher education institutions. Texas legislators pay $155 million for such programs at 28 colleges and universities.

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