Opinions

Why Fairfax should ax the substandard ‘Standard Diploma’

Look in the course catalogue for Northern Virginia Community College’s fall schedule, and you’ll find more than 40 sections of a class called Math 1. It’s a class that, according to the course description, allows students to focus on “individual strengths and weaknesses.”

But it’s not a college-level math class. Math 1 is a remedial class, which means that students who complete it will not be able to count it toward a degree or a certificate. Instead, they’ll spend their time and money learning a subject they could — and should — have learned in high school.

Math 1 is not the only remedial class being offered at Virginia’s community colleges. According to figures released at the May 9 meeting of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Committee (JLARC), Virginia’s legislative oversight agency, more than half the Virginia students who enroll in a community college need to take at least one remedial class.

JLARC wasn’t talking about the adults who return to school after many years in the workforce. These figures refer only to first-year students who graduated from a Virginia high school in the past 12 months.

At NVCC, the figure is higher than the statewide average — 2,913 of the 4,719 freshmen (62 percent) require remediation in one or more subjects. In other Virginia community colleges, as many as 80 percent of students arrive on campus needing at least one remedial class.

We shouldn’t blame the community colleges for this sorry state of affairs. They’re simply meeting the needs of the students who show up on their campuses. Instead, blame the policies that allow thousands of Virginia students to graduate from high school unprepared for college-level work.

For years, Virginia has allowed students to earn a Standard Diploma with only three years of math. That means students never have to take the math classes that will prepare them for college-level math. As a result, they wind up in classes like Math 1.

This costs Virginia in three big ways. First, it costs students. Students who take remedial classes are far less likely to earn a college degree. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) looked at what happened to students enrolled in remedial classes and noted that they were “less likely to earn a degree or certificate than students who had no remediation.”

Second, it costs taxpayers. Virginians are, essentially, paying twice. We’re offering the same classes in high school as we do in community college. We’re allowing students to earn a high school diploma when they are clearly not ready to do college-level work.

Finally, it costs our economy. For Virginia, the global economy of the 21st century is already here. While 81 percent of Virginia’s jobs are middle- or high-skill (and require some education or training beyond high school), just 43 percent of Virginia’s adults have an associate’s degree or higher, according to the nonprofit education organization Achieve. The Alliance for Excellent Education, using NCES data, estimates that students who drop out of college because they aren’t academically ready sacrifice $2 billion in lost lifetime wages. Imagine the economic boost if they were able to graduate at the same rate as students who did not require remedial education.

NVCC and Fairfax County Public Schools are planning to work together to prepare more students for college. That’s a step in the right direction. But the school board could take another big step toward ending this problem right away: It could announce that the Standard Diploma will no longer be an option at any Fairfax school (as Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology already has done).

That would put pressure on the Virginia State Board of Education to begin making the changes that business leaders, parents and certainly our community colleges know are needed. In 21 states and the District, all students are required to meet college and career-ready graduation requirements in English and math. In Virginia, only the 46 percent of students who earn the state’s Advanced Studies Diploma meet this standard.

For low-income and minority students, the numbers are far worse. Studies consistently show an achievement gap between poor and minority students and their more affluent white peers. Yet for students who take the Advanced Studies Diploma, those gaps are much smaller, according to a 2011 study by REL Appalachia.

In other words, when we raise expectations for all students, we can help our economy by preparing the workers Virginia needs. But we can also promote social justice by opening the door to college success.

Virginia’s Standard Diploma is really substandard. It’s time to phase it out. A high school diploma should be more than a ticket to Math 1. It should be a sign that students are ready to enroll in college — and do the work once they get there.

The writer, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates (D-Fairfax), is communications manager for Education Sector.

 
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