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2010 February 8 - 12:00 am

Perdue’s Focus Includes Poorly Prepared NC High School Grads

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Gov. Beverly Perdue says she’s resolute about raising the high school graduation rate because nearly 30 percent of the ninth-graders still don’t cross the stage to get a diploma in four years.

But Perdue’s 2010 education agenda has brought more attention to the more than 20,000 students who learn quickly the diplomas they earned aren’t worth as much as they hoped.

Nearly two-thirds of North Carolina’s recent graduates entering community colleges must take basic algebra, English composition or other basic courses again because they didn’t learn it well enough the first time around in high school.

Add thousands more incoming University of North Carolina system students who also are entering school behind and remedial education costs the state nearly $30 million annually and students precious time waiting to enter high-tech and other emerging fields.

“When they graduate, they only seem ready to go on to technical school or college,” Perdue said during a speech laying out her education goals. “It’s truly and simply a disservice not just to them, but to us and to North Carolina’s future.”

North Carolina’s education leaders say they’re all on the same page with Perdue and have been working on remediation with recent success. But they know that’s not good enough for the more than 80,000 students entering their senior year annually.

“I think we need to acknowledge that we’re not getting it done for all students and we need to get it done,” State Board of Education Chairman Bill Harrison said. “We need to make sure that our diplomas mean something every where.”

At a gathering of the State Board of Education, State Board of Community Colleges and University of North Carolina Board of Governors, Perdue said
the state needed to refocus its energy on one overarching goal — every child graduating from high school with the skills to succeed in a career or attend a community college, university or technical school.

“We don’t waste resources doing what we should have already done and we give kids who don’t go on to college or technical school a shot at having a real job,” she said.

Results of placement exams students must take to enter community college programs or courses of study such as nursing, biotechnology or a trade indicate they lack the basic skills needed.

Of the 21,810 public high school graduates in spring 2008 who enrolled in a community college within the next year, 64 percent took one or more “developmental” courses, the state community college system said.

More than half of those remedial students took a math class, and 40 percent of those determined math-deficient start below Algebra I, system President Scott Ralls said.

Although most the remedial education occurs in the community college system because of its open admissions policy, UNC system campuses had 4,884 students receiving remedial instruction during the 2007-08 school year, at a cost of $2.5 million, according to a system report.

The price tag for remedial courses for students 21 and under in the community college system was $26.3 million in the 2008-09 fiscal year.

“For all of us, we’re putting too much into remediation, which limits our ability, particularly in a time of tight resources and exploding enrollments,” Ralls said in an interview.

The community college system and its campuses are participating in multi-state efforts to pursue the best methods to help students who need extra help to succeed, Ralls said. A nonpartisan report estimated the annual cost of remedial education in community colleges nationwide at around $2 billion.

Some UNC system schools like Fayetteville State University hold summer “bridge programs” for incoming freshmen at risk of falling behind to prepare them for what’s expected in college.

Perdue said the work begins with quality pre-kindergarten programs. She wants to see expanded statewide the use of “diagnostic assessments” in early elementary school grades to determine which students understand subject material.

The assessments go well beyond just giving students pop quizzes. Teachers use technology to evaluate what concepts individual students fail to grasp and how to correct them, said Rebecca Garland, chief academic officer for the Department of Public Instruction.

A pilot program in the Asheville area is testing students in eighth and 10th grades to determine whether they have mastered basic skills needed to enter community college programs when they graduate, Harrison said.

Perdue has put no price tag on expanding the remediation prevention programs but said she’s looking in part to redirect money from current education programs.

Garland said the remediation problem also should be eased because students are all but required to complete a second year of algebra in order to graduate from high school, starting with this school year’s freshmen class.

“What we want our high school students to have is some idea of where they want to be and what they want to do beyond high school,” Garland said. “Our job is to make sure they are prepared to go where they want.”

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