Michigan schools racing to catch up to nation

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Capital News Service
LANSING — High schoolers in the Upper Peninsula, following a trend throughout the state, have been slipping behind the rest of the nation when it comes to preparing for college.
But with the implementation of new state high school graduation requirements, that may soon change.
“It’s an ambitious project that requires all students to have a certain amount of requisite classes,” said Michelle Ribant, director of general education at the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District. “There are 16 mandatory classes. Students have to take biology, chemistry and a third-year science experience, and now they also have to take algebra II and a fourth-year experience.”
The result, Ribant said, is that students are now graduating with what is typically called a “college prep curriculum.”
Although the state adopted the curriculum three years ago, its impact on student performance remains to be seen.
“This is an interesting time in Michigan history,” Ribant said. “The seniors of this year are not required to have the new classes to graduate, but the juniors are.”
Those juniors will be the first class of high schoolers taking the ACT since the institution of the more rigorous courses, she said.
“This is when we’ll first be able to see whether having them take these courses has an impact on their ACT scores and Michigan Merit Exam scores,” Ribant said.
According to the 2009 national college readiness report released by the ACT organization, only 18 percent of Michigan students who took the standardized ACT admission exam met all four college readiness benchmarks, compared to 23 percent of students nationwide.
The benchmarks include the four categories that ACT measures: English, science, math and social studies.
The average ACT score for students in Michigan was 19.6 out of a possible 36, while students in the rest of the nation averaged 21.1.
John Carroll, a senior consultant with the ACT Michigan office in Lansing, said that the ACT developed the college readiness benchmarks to estimate students’ potential of passing college classes.
“For example, the benchmark in English is an 18,” Carroll said. “Those with at least that score have a reasonable chance of passing college composition in their freshman year. They have a 75 percent chance of getting a B or better, and a 50 percent chance of getting a C or better.”
The report also showed that high school and college faculty disagree sharply on what it means for students to be prepared for rigorous college courses.
“If you ask high school folks if the standards in our curriculum prepare students for college, generally the answer is yes,” Carroll said. “But if you ask college faculty the same question, the answer is no.”
The biggest disagreement on preparedness, Carroll said, is how many topics ought to be the main focus, and how deeply they ought to be explored.
“High schools probably have standards that are far too broad and vague,” he said. “What colleges are looking for is more depth. Colleges really want students to read and write better, but instead, they’re too busy taking economics and other courses.”
The Eastern U.P. ISD’s Ribant said that many high school teachers have protested the new merit curriculum.
“Some schools are screaming that not all students are going to be able to do this,” she said. “But if students know they have to get through all of this in order to graduate, and if they don’t have a choice, it will happen.”
Statistics from Northern Michigan University show that the average ACT score of current freshmen is 22.7. At Lake Superior State University in Sault Ste. Marie, the majority of the freshman class entered with an equal score, or one that was even lower.
According to research done by the ACT, the average high schooler from the state who scores a 19 is already below the average NMU freshman with a 22 or a 23. He or she is also on the lower end of the majority of LSSU students, who score within the 18 to 23 range.
And like the rest of the state, Ribant said, U.P. high schoolers aren’t as well prepared for college as their out-of-state counterparts.
“The students that are now in kindergarten through eighth grade have been operating under a new set of standards for five years now,” she said. “The kids coming out of eighth grade are more prepared to enter high school. We hope that will continue to translate upwards so that students coming out of high school are more prepared for college.”
Jim Gadzinski, director of career and academic advisement at NMU, said that the university offers remedial courses in English and math, but they don’t count toward graduation.
Gadzinski said that NMU has always been a “right to try” institution and offers the remedial courses to help students who might be disadvantaged when they graduate from high school.
“Right to try means that students can get admitted under our standards,” he said. “Students who are seemingly at risk on their credentials can bring their skills up to snuff so they can pass college-level courses, but we wouldn’t fully admit them into a bachelor’s-level course.”
Implementing a more challenging curriculum is expensive for high schools, Ribant said, in part because many students are failing these harder courses.
“What is hard is that we have a lot of students who are finding it necessary to take classes over again,” she said. “Students are taking more classes in the summer to meet the requirements. If they have to take a class over again, we have to squish them in with the lower class.
“Our class sizes are gigantic. Just about 20 percent of students are not passing algebra I the first time around. That’s 20 percent more students in that class again. You may have to have three sections of a class, and where are we going to get that extra staff?
“It’s a logistical nightmare to make this happen,” she said.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.
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