These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Colorado.

Graduated, not educated

Originally posted on, Feb. 12, 2012. Copyright ©
Read here. Written by Van Schoales and Barbara O’Brien.

Too many students are graduating from Colorado high schools without the skills or knowledge to succeed in college.

A little more than a decade ago, we were part of a team at the Colorado Children’s Campaign that, with support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, launched a set of initiatives aimed at improving high school education.

In 2002, we were mostly flying blind. Colorado had CSAP data, but that was just a snapshot. The tools to measure student progress over time hadn’t yet been developed. Some high schools offered good educations, especially to high-performing students, but no Colorado high school graduated most of its low-income and minority students fully prepared for college or career training.

Today, Colorado has developed nationally recognized data systems that track a student’s academic growth over time and their preparation for college. We’ve seen some improvement in ACT scores in a few districts, a reduction in dropouts, more rigorous course work in high schools, and a few students earning a community college associates degree while still in high school. This is progress.

However, the recent release of the Colorado Department of Higher Education’s report on college remediation was a wake-up call. Too many students are graduating from high school without the skills or knowledge to succeed in college or vocational training without significant remedial education.

They graduate, but are unprepared for the next level.

Last year’s direct costs for college remediation will top $46 million. Colorado also lost potential tax revenue from under-employed college dropouts. Many of these young adults drop out of college because they can’t do the work … and they’re carrying sizeable student loans without improved job prospects. There is likelihood that their families will need public health care and social services.

We wouldn’t be surprised if the total cost for Colorado’s crisis in college preparedness is in the billions. And worse: There is a lifetime of lost opportunities for thousands of students.

DPS’s college remediation rate deserves special attention. Despite a higher graduation rate, its remediation rate has grown from 46 percent in 2006 to 59 percent, one of the highest in Colorado. The good news is that more DPS students are going on to post-secondary education or training. However, many of Denver’s high schools have remediation rates well over 60 percent. East has a 49 percent rate.

Lincoln High School is to be commended for sending 30 percent of its graduates to college, but more than 78 percent are unprepared, needing remediation to do college-level work. It is heartbreaking to talk to a student who can’t understand why she was a top student in her high school but is failing her freshman courses.

Clearly, there must be a renewed emphasis on higher standards and accountability for what is learned during high school.

DPS Superintendent Tom Boasberg is facing this tough education challenge head-on: “Graduating students who are ready for success in college is our most important measure, and the remediation numbers show that we have a lot of work to do to make further improvements across the district. And it starts long before high school.”

Colorado school districts, DPS in particular, must demand a substantive redesign of their high schools. More advanced placement courses, credit recovery programs or ninth-grade academies added to failing schools are no substitute for real reform. Districts need to create an education continuum that is committed to boosting student achievement so that most are ready to succeed:

• Preschool for children who are already behind, preparing them to enter school ready to learn to read;

• Elementary schools that lay the literacy and math foundations for school success;

• Middle schools that have a relentless focus on filling gaps in student’s skills and accelerating their strengths;

• High schools that ensure every student is meeting benchmarks for post-secondary readiness, and principals and teachers who know well before graduation if a student needs extra help in meeting those benchmarks;

• Enriched, extra learning time for students who need it, every year.

We know it can be done. Denver School of Science and Technology and a number of schools around the country have proven it’s possible to prepare all students for post- secondary education and training, regardless of the student’s circumstances.

What’s their secret? They have a rigorous academic program and high expectations for all students. They support and develop their teachers. They embrace accountability for themselves and foster a culture of responsibility among the students with a clear set of student-performa

Every school district must put student achievement above all else. We will need to not just closely monitor whether students get diplomas but also if they have the skills, habits and knowledge for success post-high school.

A high school diploma should mean something. Do we have the political will to tackle the college remediation crisis head on?

Barbara O’Brien is senior fellow at The Piton Foundation and is former Colorado lieutenant governor. She serves on the board of the Colorado Democrats for Education Reform.

Van Schoales is CEO of A+ Denver and vice president for education at the Colorado Children’s Campaign, 2001-2006. He serves on the board of the Colorado Democrats for Education Reform.