More city public school graduates are enrolling at City University of New York Colleges, Schools Chancellor Joel Klein and CUNY President Matt Goldstein boasted at a press conference last month. But whether the students are prepared for the college experience, both in and outside the classroom, is much less clear.
Only 7.5% of students take all of the high school courses that CUNY recommends, and more than 70% of the first-year students in CUNY’s junior colleges must take remedial courses to catch up on basic skills, according to John Garvey, who was until recently the dean in charge of CUNY’s College Now program, which allows high school students to take college-level courses. Garvey presented the information at an event Tuesday held by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which is developing a set of recommendations for how to boost student achievement.
One major problem is that the most advanced high school courses, called Regents courses to match the exit exams students must pass, do not approximate the style or difficulty of college classes, Garvey said. CUNY freshmen are exempted from remedial courses if they score a 75 on the math and English Regents exams. But the tests focus on material that should be learned in middle school and the first years of high school, Garvey said. “They don’t align with the real needs of college courses,” he said.
Another issue is that most high schools don’t give students good information about how to apply for college or prepare for the work there, Garvey said.
A recent high school graduate on the panel said she’s experienced both problems in her transition to college. Adilka Pimentel, a 19-year-old who has worked as a community organizer in Brooklyn for years, described picking her first city college based on a friend’s recommendation, then having to pay for a remedial math class because no one at her high school had encouraged her to retake the math Regents exam, on which she had scored a 74, one point shy of the 75 CUNY requires for exemption. (She had earned a 92 on the English Regents test.)
At York College in Queens and after transferring to the Borough of Manhattan Community College, Pimentel said she stuck to subjects like math and reading that were familiar to her from high school, where students had little choice about what they studied. Even in those classes, she said, she doesn’t feel prepared.
“Half of the reading and vocabulary, I am just not familiar with,” she said. “My teacher just questions, ‘What kind of education are you coming from?'”
The key problem, said an audience member who works with a program that pays some students for high scores on Advanced Placement exams, is that “far too few students are being challenged by an academically rigorous course of study.”
To boost their chances of college success, all high school students should take full course loads all of the time and should retake Regents exams until they score a 75 or higher, Garvey said. He said high schools should offer more access to college-level courses, such as the ones available through the College Now program. Garvey also proposed what he called a “new ninth grade” that would get students up to speed faster. “At least by tenth grade students should be ready to do high school for real,” he said, adding that the extra periods of reading and math that many high schools have introduced in ninth grade doesn’t solve the problem.
A Bronx high school principal on the panel said he is trying to get students ready for college by setting high expectations. “I don’t recognize a local diploma,” said Rashid Davis, principal of Bronx Engineering and Technology Academy, or BETA, referring to a less rigorous type of diploma. Students in the last several years have been able to get a local diploma by scoring less high on Regents exams, but starting with this year’s high school freshmen, the higher-bar Regents diplomas will become the only option — besides not graduating.
Davis said that BETA requires incoming students to take high-school courses during the summer, and students are required to re-take Regents exams until they score 75 or higher. Ninety percent of BETA’s first cohort of students graduated on time last year, Davis said, and 88% of the graduates earned a Regents diploma. He said he couldn’t yet say how the graduates did in their first semester of college.
On the issue of college advising, one high school principal in attendance lamented that because the college counselor position does not exist apart from guidance counselors, it can be hard for schools to both pay for the position and find qualified counselors. In its report, the Annenberg Institute is likely to call for CUNY to create a certificate program for college counseling specialists, Garvey said.