Making sense of numbers

March 20, 2005|by TAMELA BAKER

ANNAPOLIS - Few would argue that those basic skills of reading, writing and 'rithmetic are essential for success.

But when analysts compile data to determine how well students are performing in those areas, the answers can be hard to come by.

As far as conclusions are concerned, it's all in the interpretation.

Last month, legislative analyst Henriot St. Gerard presented a report to a Senate subcommittee considering aid to community colleges, including Hagerstown Community College.

In the report, St. Gerard included a table showing that 69.7 percent of students entering Maryland community colleges in the 2002-03 school year were assessed as needing remediation in one or more of the three areas tested - math, English and history. At Hagerstown Community College, the number was 71.7 percent, or 359 students.


St. Gerard cited the Maryland Higher Education Commission's Student Outcome and Achievement Report as the source for those figures.

The report itself was not officially released until this month.

And when it was, those numbers weren't in it - exactly.

What the report did say was that of the students who graduated from public high schools in Maryland and enrolled at HCC that year, 58 percent needed remediation in math, 59 percent needed remediation in English and 30 percent needed remediation in reading.

Additionally, the report says that of those, 41 percent who reported taking "core," or college preparatory, courses in high school still needed remediation in math, 46 percent needed remediation in English and 21 percent needed remediation in reading.

Beyond mere numbers

But those numbers should be read with a few caveats, according to Katherine M. Oliver, the state Department of Education's assistant state superintendent in the Division of Career Technology and Adult Learning.

She pointed out that students were categorized as having taken core classes if during high school they complete:

· Four or more years of English

· Three or more years of math

· Three or more years of social science or history

· Two or more years of natural science

· Two or more years of foreign languages

Those courses might not be rated by difficulty, however. For example, Oliver said a student could complete three years of math credits without taking algebra II, preferred for college preparation. Or students may not have taken any math courses during their senior year, and therefore might need remediation.

English languish

More than 90 percent of higher education remediation occurs in community colleges, according to Jeffrey P. Lucas, a program manager in the Division of Career Technology and Adult Learning. Lucas took a closer look at the numbers for Washington County and found some hopeful trends, as well as some areas that required further improvement.

Lucas said that since 1999, all Maryland community colleges have been using the same standards for determining the need for remediation, allowing analysts to compare results.

He found that the number of Washington County students needing remediation in math had dropped by 14 percentage points in two years, from 43 percent in 2000 to 29 percent in 2002. The number needing remediation in reading had slipped from 16 percent to 15 percent during the same time period.

In English, on the other hand, the number of county students needing remediation rose from 28 percent in 1999 to 32 percent in 2002. The state average in 2002 was 14 percent.

Further, HCC students had the third lowest remediation rate among the state's community colleges. The rate was right in the middle for reading, but next to highest in English, exceeded only by Baltimore City Community College.

"The English remediation rate for 'core' students ought to be of concern to Washington County," Oliver said.

But she added that these regular reports "have encouraged school systems and community colleges to sit down and talk" about how to improve student performance in these areas.

"The big issue from our perspective is more needs to be done, but we are making progress," Oliver said.

St. Gerard confirmed this week that the numbers he presented to the Senate committee came from the SOAR report, and reflect the reported remediation needs in one or more of the three courses ranked.

But because many students need remediation in more than one of the three categories, Lucas said it's impossible to exactly determine an "unduplicated" rate. He estimated that slightly less than half of the first-year students enrolling at HCC required remedial course work in 2002-03.

And since many of these numbers are derived from students who have taken SAT or ACT tests, there might be significant numbers of students who are not included in the report at all because most community colleges do not require these tests for entrance, Lucas said.

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