On his first day at Northern Oklahoma College, Chris Gibson stood in a hallway and surveyed his class schedule: English composition, freshman orientation, geography and concepts of algebra, a remedial class that Gibson was supposed to have mastered by his sophomore year in high school.
“It’s going to be tough, but it’s what I have to do,” Gibson said of taking a review class for which he will pay hundreds of dollars and earn no college credits. “This is the best option I have now.”
Gibson, 20, is just one of thousands of Oklahoma high school graduates who find themselves forced to play catch-up once they reach college.
The troubling truth is that almost four out of every 10 college-bound Oklahoma high school graduates are required to take at least one remedial class.
Some education experts call those numbers “deplorable,” and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently cited the high remediation rate as evidence that Oklahoma is being “out-educated” by other states.
Students required to take a remedial class tend to incur far more student debt, are much more likely to drop out of school and cost the U.S. billions of dollars in lost job opportunities, studies show.
“Remediation is paying for the same education twice,” said Bob Wise, president of the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington D.C.-based national policy organization focusing on at-risk secondary school students. “The nation’s schools need to get it right the first time.”
Alex Weintz, a spokesman for Gov. Mary Fallin, said lowering the number of college students needing remedial work long has been a priority.
“It means that we know that we have children graduating high school who are not ready for college,” Weintz, said. “It handicaps those kids when they get to college. They might not graduate, and if they do graduate, they have to spend more money and get saddled with even more debt.”
Weintz said the state has reallocated $150 million over the past two years to address the problem and said new state education standards now being developed also should help.
“A lot of these reforms are just now being implemented,” Weintz said.
By the numbers
Nationally, 32 percent of all high school graduates who attend college take at least one remedial course, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. That compares with about 39 percent in Oklahoma, or about 7,530 of the 19,000 college-bound students who graduated from 465 Oklahoma high schools in 2012, the latest year for which figures were available.
Overwhelmingly, students needed help in math. Of those Oklahoma students who took at least one remedial class, 90 percent took a math course, 41 percent took an English course and 24 percent took a reading course, according to data from the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. Only 3 percent enrolled in a remedial science course.
Oklahoma high schools varied widely in the percentage of graduates needing extra help at the college level. Some of the highest percentages attended rural high schools with only a small number of college-bound graduates.
At Paden High School in Okfuskee County, for example, all seven college-bound graduates took at least one remedial course. At Wewoka High School in Seminole County, 13 out of 14 graduates took at least one class.
Urban high schools with large percentages of low-income students also produced a high percentage of graduates needing remedial help.
In Oklahoma County, more than 90 percent of college-bound graduates from both John Marshall High School and Oklahoma Centennial High School took remedial classes. But less than 30 graduates from each school went on to college. Nearly 75 percent of students at John Marshall and 90 percent at Centennial qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, an indicator of poverty.
Of Oklahoma high schools that graduated more than 100 college-bound students, Nathan Hale High School in Tulsa had the highest percentage of students taking remedial courses — 73 percent. Midwest City High School led the way among Oklahoma County schools, with 63 percent of students taking remedial courses.
Nathan Hale Principal Caleb Starr noted that 42 percent of his school’s students are Hispanic, many of whom speak English as a second language. He said he is proud that Nathan Hale has the third-highest graduation rate of Tulsa’s public high schools and that so many of its graduates go on to college.
“We are proud of our graduation rate and that we are getting more kids to college than we used to,” Starr said. “Now we’ll focus on increasing the rigor of classwork to help the students once they get to college.”
Holland Hall High School, a private college-prep school in Tulsa, had the best percentage of prepared students with only one of its 18 graduates needing a remedial class — in reading. In Oklahoma County, Classen S.A.S. led the way with only about about 7 percent of its 72 college-bound graduates needing remedial help. Bishop McGuinness fared the best among Oklahoma County schools with more than 100 college-bound students. Only 14 of its 125 graduates, or 11 percent, needed remedial help, all in math.
McGuinness Principal David Morton said he credits good teachers and a focus on the core subjects for the school’s low remediation rate.
“Math, reading, science and social studies are at the center of our education program,” Morton said. “We tend to not to get caught up in the trends of education, and we stay true to our core beliefs.”
National education groups have attributed a rise in the number of students needing remedial classes, in part, to declining standards in the K-12 education system.
“Ideally we want the standards they are teaching in high school to align with the ones in college,” said Tony Hutchison, with the Oklahoma State Regents for Higher Education. “But if there is a gap between the standards of high school and college, that is a big problem.”
In Oklahoma, students attending state colleges who score less than 19 on any portion of the ACT are tagged for remediation, but they are given an opportunity to take another placement test. Those who pass are allowed to enroll in regular freshman-level courses.
In some cases, such as at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, students who fail the placement test can remain on campus and take a remedial class. In other instances, students might be steered toward community colleges associated with the universities to take courses that will allow them to catch up.
At Northern Oklahoma College’s Stillwater campus, which acts as a gateway school for those who applied to OSU but failed to meet admission requirements, more than 50 percent of the students are enrolled in one or more remedial classes.
But it’s not just that thousands of students need a remedial course that scares Debbie Quiery, vice president of NOC, which has campuses in Stillwater, Enid and Tonkawa. It’s also the fact that fewer than one in 10 of those students will graduate from community college within three years and that a little more than a third will complete a bachelor’s degree in six years.
That just adds to college costs and student debt, Quiery said.
Most students entering college already are aware they aren’t up to snuff in a certain subject, Quiery said.
“I’d say 98 percent of them know they need remediation,” she said. “They aren’t the least bit surprised.”
NOC offers weeklong boot camps before the first week of school to help refresh incoming students on the materials in hopes of raising their scores on the placement test.
Quiery said often students who were good at math might not have taken a math course since their sophomore or junior years of high school.
That rust can cause gaping holes in the student’s memory of the material.
To illustrate her point, Quiery said she takes the math placement test before each semester. She said she routinely fails.
“I would be in remedial math,” Quiery said. “It’s because I don’t use the concepts or study them on a regular basis.”
NOC sophomore, Derek Gould, 20, took a remedial math course as a freshman. He said he did OK at math at Woodward High School, but he didn’t feel he knew the material well enough once he got to NOC to try a higher level.
“Money is tight; I just wanted to make sure,” Gould said. “I don’t want to waste it by taking a class and failing it and then having to take the same class again and not being any better at it.”
But even students who did everything they were told to get ready for college often find they’re not as prepared as they thought.
Max Murphree, 21, said he felt confident enrolling his first year at OSU after his education at Norman High School.
“I took AP classes, and I got good grades in high school,” Murphree said. “I thought I was prepared.”
But after his first year at OSU, Murphree found himself with a poor grade point average and in need of a change. He started taking classes at NOC and is trying to earn his way back to OSU.
“This was not what I was expecting to happen,” he said. “Now I’m just trying to make the best of it.”
At Putnam City High School, administrators are working to lower the remedial rate. In 2012, the school sent 161 students to college and 39 percent of them had to take a remedial course, almost exactly on par with the state average.
School Principal Diana Lebsack said the school staff members are trying several measures that they believe will cut that number.
Enrollment in Advanced Placement classes is up at the school, and counselors are encouraging students who have already completed their high school math requirement to take advantage of “concurrent enrollment,” where students can take college-level courses while still in high school.
The district also is allowing juniors the opportunity to take the $54 ACT free of charge during school hours. Typically, seniors took the test, and it was only offered on weekends. School officials hope the the changes will help them earlier identify students who may be struggling and need assistance.
“We know those stats, and we are fighting like crazy to lower them,” Lebsack said during the Pirates’ first week back at school in mid-August.
When it comes down to it though, Lebsack said she believes students get back in college what they put into high school.
“It really depends on the level of rigor that they pushed themselves to in high school,” she said. “Those that pushed themselves and took difficult classes usually come back to tell us that they are doing just fine in college.”
Back at NOC, Gibson, the freshman taking remedial math, said he knows he’ll have to stay on his studies if he’s going to succeed. Gibson, who graduated from McLain Junior and Senior High School for Science and Technology in Tulsa, wants to pursue a career as a pharmacist or a veterinarian.
He also has a bit of extra motivation.
Last May, Gibson’s grandfather died. Gibson cites his grandfather as one of his biggest role models. He watched the man work long days as a handyman across the Tulsa area, doing back-breaking work taking care of other people’s property. Gibson said his grandfather always stressed the importance of school.
“‘Put your education first,’ is what he always taught me,” Gibson said. “I’m going to give it my all here and make the best of myself. If I have to start a little behind, that’s OK, I guess.
“At least I’m here.”