Putting Education Reform To The Test

13th Grade: How Florida Schools Are Failing To Prepare Graduates For College

Sagette Van Embden / Florida Center for Investigative Reporting

Shakira Lockett, 22, spent three semesters taking remedial classes before she began working on college-level courses. Lockett, who attended Miami Dade College’s Wolfson campus in downtown Miami, completed her associate’s degree in mass communications and journalism in May.

Florida’s K-12 public education system has graduated hundreds of thousands of students in the past decade who couldn’t read, write or solve math problems well enough to take some college-level courses.

More than half of high school graduates who took the college placement test in the 2010-2011 school year found out they had to take at least one remedial course in college to boost basic skill. These students couldn’t pass at least one subject on the placement exam used to assess the abilities of incoming students.

Florida’s 28 public community and state colleges are required to accept anyone with a high school diploma or G.E.D.

Students taking remedial classes have a harder time getting through college. They must pay for —  and the state must subsidize – these basic-skills courses. They do not receive credit toward graduation for remedial classes, and can’t take courses that do count for credit until their skills improve. The result for these students is a longer path to graduating college.

Many of those students never complete their studies.

The need for remedial education is a nationwide problem. But it’s a significantly worse problem in Florida than elsewhere, despite the state’s reputation as a pioneer in overhauling K-12 education.

Some 54 percent of Florida students who took the state college placement test need remedial work in at least one subject. The national average for first-time students needing remediation is 40 percent.

Demand for remedial courses in Florida has doubled since 2007.

Reducing the number of unprepared students in Florida is critical to the state’s economic recovery for several reasons:

  • Remedial education increases the cost of a college degree to students and taxpayers.
  • Research shows that students who take remedial classes are less likely to graduate from college than those who arrive ready for college-level work.
  • Florida’s economy needs more college-educated workers.
  • Without a college degree, workers earn lower wages and contribute less in taxes.

National educators are watching how Florida addresses this problem. The Sunshine State has one of the largest community and state college systems in the country. Randall W. Hanna oversees it.

“There is a cost, a cost to the state, a cost to the student. There’s a cost of time,” said Hanna, chancellor of the Florida College System, which does not include the state’s four-year universities. “We all know if they go into the lower-level math class, they have less of a chance to make it all the way through. We have a real incentive from a cost standpoint to reduce the number of students in developmental education and to make sure they are college ready when they come to our system.”

The Economy’s Effect

bionicteching / Flickr

One in two Florida students who took the state's college placement exam in the 2010-2011 school year had to take at least one remedial course. Those students are less likely to graduate than a student who does not take any remedial classes.

There are many factors behind the growing crisis of remedial education at Florida’s community and state colleges. Two of them stand out.

One is the Great Recession. The persistently weak job market has produced a surge of displaced older workers at community and state colleges. The number of students aged 20 and older grew by 63 percent between 2003 and 2011. Many of them have been encouraged by the increased availability of federal financial aid.

Some of these older students are going to college for the first time or finishing degrees they never completed. Others are going back to retrain for a different career. Either way, their basic skills tend to be rusty. Older students accounted for 85 percent of those taking remedial courses at Florida’s state colleges in 2010-11.

The subject these students need the most help with is math. Four of every five first-year, full-time students over age 20 had to take remedial math courses, according to the 2011 Florida College System Readiness report using 2009-10 data. For those age 35 and older, the rate increased to 90 percent.

A Skills Gap


Researcher Matthew Ladner says that as Florida schools increase their high school graduation rates, more students will likely need remedial classes.

The other big factor is more endemic to public education in Florida. Essentially, there is a disconnect between what students are learning in K-12 schools and what they need to succeed once they get to college.

For more than a decade, under the auspices of reform, Florida has been making dramatic changes to primary education. That included changes in curriculum and graduation requirements aimed at improving student performance in core subjects like reading, math, writing and science.

Standardized tests became more important. The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT, became more than a measure of student performance. Scores became a determinant of how much state funding schools received or whether they could remain open at all. Starting this year, scores help determine teacher pay.

The overriding goal of these changes was to increase the high school graduation rate – and they did. Though Florida has changed the way it calculates its graduation rates, the rate has risen both before and after the change.

But as it’s turned out, increasing the number of high school graduates is not necessarily the same thing as producing more students who are ready for college.

Policy makers have known this for a while. In 2006, the state Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability, the research arm of Florida Legislature, found the state’s effort to improve K-12 education hadn’t improved college readiness among students.

At that time, the state agency recommended bridging what it called a “curriculum gap” the difference between what high school students are taught and what they need to know going into college. Among the problems the OPPAGA report noted included the lack of rigorous high school graduation requirements that go hand-in-hand with college expectations and the need to integrate mathematics and reading to reinforce other courses such as social studies, science and electives.

Measures have only recently been implemented under legislative mandate.

Some education experts lay the blame on the FCAT. Critics say the FCAT’s outsized importance leaves schools little choice but to teach to the test. One of them is Bob Schaeffer, the public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing. He contends that the test interferes with the ability of public schools to prepare students for college.

“When K-12 classes focus on preparation for a narrow, flawed FCAT exam, students are denied the opportunity to master the more sophisticated content and higher-level thinking skills they need to succeed as undergraduates or in the workforce,” Schaeffer said. “The huge percentage of Florida high school graduates who must take remedial courses in college is yet another example of the failure of FCAT-driven public education.”

Matthew Ladner disagrees. He’s a policy and research adviser for Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, an organization that promotes nationally some of the changes Bush pushed in Florida while he was governor – like increasing emphasis on FCAT scores.  Ladner said Florida’s public education has made significant gains in the past decade, thanks in part to high-stakes testing.

“I think people are throwing out the baby with the bath water,” Ladner said. “If you think about what Florida was like before the FCAT, Florida was one of the lowest-ranked states in the country on NAEP.”  The NAEP is a national assessment provided to students in grades, 4, 8 and 12 to track student academic progress over time.

To some degree, according to Ladner, Florida’s public education system may be a victim of its own success. He credits the FCAT for increasing the number of high school graduates. Ladner sees it as not altogether unexpected that some of those students would struggle at the college level.

“When you have a substantial increase in graduation rates and you have an increase of kids taking college placement exams, some of these problems would become natural,” Ladner said, referring to the large number of students who can’t pass the college placement exam. “It’s not to diminish that remediation is a problem.”

The Search For Solutions

Miami Dade College

Lenore Rodicio with Miami Dade College

Florida has begun to address the remedial education problem. In fact, the number of high school students who are prepared for college work has improved some 10 points since 2003 when 64 percent of high school graduates failed at least one subject on the college entrance exam. Still, state education officials acknowledge that the improvements have fallen short of what’s necessary.

Recent legislative changes have taken aim at the problem. The changes include a creating a new college placement test to identify which subjects current high school students need help with before they get to college; increasing  the amount of math instruction high schoolers are required to have in order to graduate; and evaluating students’ college readiness before 12th grade.

Florida also is moving away from the FCAT toward something called the Common Core State Standards. These are academic standards for K-12 students that are supposed to be more aligned to college standards. Forty-five states and the District of Columbia have signed on to the new standards. New curriculum and assessments are being created for Florida based on these standards.

The Florida college system also is revamping remedial courses themselves. The goal is to use computerized classes and other targeted teaching techniques aimed at teaching students the skills they need to continue their college programs. But college educators can do little to prepare students before they reach their campuses.

That’s the point Lenore P. Rodicio repeats over and over again when she speaks at public events. Rodicio is the Vice Provost for Student Achievement Initiatives at Miami Dade College. At her school, 63 percent of high school graduates take at least one remedial course upon enrollment. As Rodicio sees it, receiving a high school diploma today should mean a student is ready for college.

“It’s the case for some students now,” Rodicio said, “but not for everybody.”

In a series of stories this week and throughout December, the Florida Center for Investigating Reporting and StateImpact Florida will explore the growing need for remedial education among Florida’s high school graduates and older students. We’ll try to figure out how we got here and what the state can do to improve public education and provide students with the skills and tools they need to succeed in college and in the workforce.   


  • CollegeProf

    As a college professor at a Florida school, I see thislack of readiness every day. I teach composition and literature, and very few of the students in my classes, young or old, are ready to write a college level paper. Why? Because they are not required to write papers in high school. And if they are, there is NO attention to citations or format. Research is sketchy at best and they are essentially taight to plagiarize under the guise of “paraphrasing” but not citing the source of the idea. Then they don’t understand WHY they turn in their first American Literature paper and earn an F. They are also conditioned to “extra credit” as a way to replace a bad grade. They are shocked when I tell them that EXTRA means over and above the requirements. It’s not a get out of jail free card. They also do not understand fixed due dates, late work not being accepted, or the fact that C work is GOOD. It is the average. If they want A’s the work must be FLAWLESS and go above and beyond the minimum requirements for an assignment. It’s not just about teaching the subjects. It is about teaching the discipline and attention to details required in academia which, in turn, also apply in professional discourse.

    • bill m.

      perhaps you should have proofread your own posting sir…

      • Huh?!

        No capitalization, just a sentence fragment, no real content. Yep, you have a lot to talk about there ‘bill’.

        • If you’re going to call all students out on poor composition Bill is right in saying you should’ve proofread. He didn’t go into detail, but I will. “thislack” should be “this lack”
          “And if they are” – Who starts a sentence with the word and?
          “taight” should be “taught”.

          I would advise people to board up their windows before throwing rocks, even though I do agree that the Florida education system (which I went through myself) leaves students woefully unprepared for college or life in general. In Florida today, if you want an education you have to go get it yourself. I’m glad I did.

      • I Spy With My Little Eye

        “Response had a typographical error, must be an invalid argument!” – Every idiot who is too lazy to think. I bet bill was positively gleeful over saving everyone the time and effort of reading this analysis because it had a typographical error in it and therefore must have no merit whatsoever. Florida education at its finest.

        • bill m.

          I never stated that the argument was invalid, however if by some chance this professor wants to blast the school system he should not have been contributing to the problem. Proper context and representing himself on a public board should not have looked as though one of his poor students wrote what he did.
          Obviously this struck a nerve and lead to a gross misconception on your part.

    • teacher8

      I am so glad there’s professors like you out there who continue to hold students to high standards. Please don’t give in and please do continue to give the grades you do. You are absolutely correct in all of this. As a middle school teacher, I’m appalled that I “have” to pass all of my students, even if they can’t write a single correct sentence. It’s disgusting and I’m embarrassed at admitting that. Even knowing I must pass them on, I hold them to the highest standards possible until I must squeak them by with a 60%. I always hope and pray that someone will hold them accountable down the line. I sincerely appreciate all you do.

      • Sherry Maze

        I was even forced to change a student’s conduct grade from Poor to Excellent, although he was suspended for fighting. His mother and the principal said he was not there for the remainder of the week that he was expelled and therefore got to “start over” on the Monday that he returned with Excellent. We were not allowed to give a student lower than 65, even if they never turned in a thing. That is when I retired. BTW, this is in Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee’s district, where she sometimes visits.

    • Another College Prof

      I totally agree with you, CollegeProf. On the first day of the class, I inform my students that I don’t take late assignments, and I don’t offer extra credit.

      Plus, if the average grade in my class is above a C, it tells me that I’m not challenging them enough.

      And don’t get me started about students who text on their cell phones during class……..

  • Michele

    Please clarify. My understanding is that only students within a certain range have to take the college placement test (PERT – Post Secondary Education Readiness Test.) The top students graduating from high school are not required to take it because they have demonstrated their readiness via FCAT scores, AP scores, GPA, etc., and the bottom students don’t take it because remediation is a given. This article is misleading. It makes it sound as if it is accounting for every high school grad in Florida when really it is accounting for lower than average students.

    • anna butler

      Actually, now all high school juniors take the PERT. Those that score as underprepared then take courses like Math for College Readiness their senior years.

  • twiga50

    While I agree there are shortcomings in K-12 education, the CPT/PERT test is, itself, also somewhat flawed. Testing “college readiness” midway through their 11th grade? Last I checked that isn’t the doorstep to graduation. Also, Florida K-12 students are tested to death. When the PERT test comes around it ‘doesn’t count’ if a student has the ACT/SAT scores to be exempt, so there is little motivation for them. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying this is an excuse, but one part of the equation to be qualified a little.

  • Cassandra McLain

    Posts like this actually amaze me , in school you learn more than books. You have to learn to be smart and understand that there are different approaches. Failing in school? People successfully hack their grades for the better. You failed in school isn’t the end of the world but make sense of school so you make your parents proud . Visit double u double u double u dot hackterrific dot com for all you need.

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