For years state officials have struggled to make a dent in the alarmingly high percentage of high school graduates who need remedial help in college. Finally, officials say they’re ready to try something new to lower the number of college freshmen who are unprepared for post-secondary courses. But the state, sadly, is overlooking the real problem: Our existing K-12 school system fails to meet the needs of Idaho (and by extension, American) schoolchildren.

Wayne Hoffman

Wayne Hoffman

Wayne Hoffman

For many years, more than 25 percent of Idaho’s incoming four-year college and university students have had to take remedial college courses when they entered post-secondary schooling. For community colleges, up to 60 percent of students annually require supplemental education to cover what their K-12 government schooling missed. Students don’t earn college credit for remedial classes, but they still have to pay for them, so they accrue more debt or lose time on their path toward graduation.

Instead of focusing on the student knowledge piece of the puzzle, state officials have spent a decade prodding as many high school seniors as possible to enroll in a college degree or post-secondary certificate program. I’ve been a vocal critic of the state’s college enrollment goals and its singular focus on feeding the higher education machine with as many bodies as possible, especially when annual statistics show many are unprepared for the college lecture hall. Not only has the state’s obsession with enrollment been a contributing factor in students being required to take remedial classes, but it’s also contributed to an unremarkable, even embarrassing, college completion rate. Moreover, the cultural and political emphasis on college enrollment has likely pushed kids into a career path that may or may not suit their needs, let alone those of the economy.

The State Board of Education says it has made progress by allowing high school students in remedial English to earn college credit through so-called “co-requisite” courses, which then allows students to enroll in freshman college English. That means they’re no longer just paying to play catch up. SBOE chief academic officer Randall Brumfield says the agency is working to come up with a similar solution for math courses, but Brumfield says that problem is more complex. That’s because, he explains, a high school graduate’s math understanding may suffice for the degree the student is pursuing in college. Brumfield maintains, there may be “false assumptions in our current system for how we define [college] preparedness.”

In other words, the students today labeled as unprepared for college work might, in fact, be “prepared enough,” as concerns their field of study, perhaps exempting them from the burden of a remedial class. The worry with such a solution is, rather than raise the required knowledge level of high school graduates entering college, the State Board of Education may let slide a student’s lack of understanding that today would trigger participation in a remedial course. Some might call that lowering the bar.

Remedial college courses remain a symptom of a greater problem—-too many youngsters spend years in public schools but leave K-12 education unprepared for the world that awaits. Employers and college professors get to witness the results every day: young adults who aren’t ready to meet the demands of either a workplace or academia, even after taxpayers have spent roughly $90,000 per student over the course of 13 years.

That the State Board of Education is giving long-overdue attention to the need for remedial courses is great. Moving the goalposts, not so much. Sure, it might lower the numbers of students who need extra help in college, but it ignores the fact that more than a dozen years of schooling has failed to prepare students for their future. That’s where education officials should focus their attention. Our K-12 education system, which will gobble up nearly $2 billion state dollars next year, must find ways to bring students to the bar, rather than reward mediocrity or give passing marks to unprepared pupils.

Wayne Hoffman is president of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

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