Illustration by Jon Krause
It's been nearly 15 years since Framike LaShell Robertson donned cap and gown to collect her hard-earned Richmond Public Schools high-school diploma. She says she felt prepared for her next step: college.
But the John Marshall grad — today an adjunct psychology professor at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College — remembers well the sting that followed when she enrolled as a student at Reynolds, only to discover her diploma didn't mean as much as she thought.
"I didn't meet the qualifications based upon the community college's criteria," says Robertson, who found herself saddled with nearly a year of noncredit remedial courses to bring her up to speed along with the cost of tuition, textbooks and other fees for those classes.
"I was heartbroken," she says. "I was an honor student at John Marshall, so I was thinking, ‘I'm prepared for community college, at least.' "
That rude awakening is one she sees frequently among her own students. They arrive with a diploma declaring them ready — but they're not ready.
Closing the Gap
Lack of preparedness is an issue that the Virginia Department of Education (VDOE), in cooperation with the State Council for Higher Education for Virginia (SCHEV) and the Virginia Community College System, is now working to address.
The state's effort to close the gap between high-school achievement and college preparedness began in earnest in 2007. Those efforts included both planned changes to the state's Standards of Learning (SOL) benchmark tests over the next few years, as well as the creation of Capstone classes — high-school classes aimed at making students like Robertson ready for college by the time they collect their high-school diplomas.
Though raising the standardized-testing bar certainly will improve student readiness, achievement on SOLs still represents minimum proficiency, says Charles Pyle, spokesman for the VDOE, which is why Capstone classes may serve as the real bridge to closing the preparedness gap.
"A lot has happened," says Pyle, delivering an understatement that stretches to capture events of the decade-plus since the state instituted game-changing revisions to its SOL benchmark tests.
A decade ago, Pyle says, "We were talking about whether the board had set the bar too high." Many educators and critics predicted "tens of thousands of students not graduating," he says.
That didn't happen, but the standards also failed to measure students' college or career readiness.
"Once they get to college, it's a rude awakening," says Tracy Fair Robertson (no relation to Framike Robertson), the VDOE's English coordinator. She has helped lead efforts to develop the state performance expectations that serve as the foundation for Capstone.
Eventually, Virginia education officials hope to see Capstone classes offered at all high schools throughout the state. The rollout starts this fall with two schools — in Waynesboro and Newport News — offering pilot English courses; Capstone courses in math will be offered for the first time in the 2012-13 school year. After that, localities will be responsible for offering the courses, although state colleges and universities will expect high-school graduates to be prepared according to the state's new "performance objectives."
By description the Capstone English classes sound very much like college courses, but they aren't aimed just at high-performing students. What makes them different is the way in which they seek to link concepts and ideas from earlier classes, including those in other subject areas. In other words, they encourage students to think critically and do more than regurgitate memorized facts.
Because the courses will be offered as electives rather than required classes, they're designed for students who hope to attend college, university or trade school. Capstone classes are for students who "are college intending, but not yet college ready," Robertson says.
The concept is similar with Capstone math courses, says Michael F. Bolling, VDOE's mathematics coordinator. The classes, Bolling says, are like a word problem that requires students to build core mathematics concepts one upon another, while also giving students a reason to see how math relates to real life.
"This is kind of saying, ‘OK, give me something relevant as to why I'm sitting in this math class today — and how I'm going to use this stuff in the future,' " Bolling says.
Although the state hopes to see Capstone classes at all high schools, the state did not carve in stone how those core concepts should be taught.
"It's not going to be one-size-fits-all," Robertson says. She says that the English pilot courses at Waynesboro High School and Woodside High School in Newport News are likely to look very different, based on students' needs. The objectives, however, remain consistent, agree Robertson and Bolling.
What sets Capstone classes apart is actually something that people outside of education might consider obvious: alignment of educational goals and objectives among all of the stakeholders.
Those stakeholders — the heads at the Department of Education, the community-college system and SCHEV — came together last year to develop and sign an agreement on exactly what constitutes college preparedness.
"This is the first time in the eight years I've been here [at VDOE] that we've had a signed agreement between the three groups," Robertson says. And, she adds, the agreement has meant that "the lines
of communication were really opened up" for the people lower down the chain of command.
Robertson says she is unaware of any other state that has developed similar lines of direct communication between its secondary and post-secondary educators aimed at defining needs for English- or math-proficiency expectations.
"They're waiting to see [what we do]," says Robertson, who will present a program on Virginia's initiative at the National Council of Teachers of English conference this November.
There's good reason for Virginia to address the issue: According to a recent study by the General Assembly's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, more than half of Virginia high-school graduates enrolling in an in-state college or university have required remedial instruction, including non-credit classes.
At J. Sargeant Reynolds last year, more than 60 percent of students coming with diplomas from Richmond-area high schools needed remedial classes — significantly higher than the state average.
"We do have, of our first-time entering students … a high percentage of those students who do require developmental coursework," says David R. Loope, vice president of academic affairs at Reynolds. "That's who we deal with."
In Framike Robertson's case, she eventually earned her two-year degree and later her bachelor's and master's degrees from four-year universities. But she would have had an easier time if her Virginia high-school diploma's bill of goods had matched the advertisement.
"It affected me in that it made me feel that I was not smart," she says, not to mention the additional time and money it cost her in remedial coursework.
Between summer 2010 and spring 2011, the gap between high-school achievement and college preparedness cost Reynolds students more than $2.76 million. That number represents the cost of tuition for remedial courses needed by nearly 1,500 students who enrolled at Reynolds but were unable to pass prequalification tests for college-level math and English courses. Officially, the cost is $12 million yearly at Virginia's 23 community colleges, although educators acknowledge that the actual cost is likely higher.
Until Capstone classes become more common — and assuming they are successful in closing the gap between high-school achievement and college expectations — students must bear most of that cost, although government scholarships and grants occasionally help.
Community colleges are enthusiastic about how Capstone classes might change the quality and qualifications of students enrolling, Loope says.
"I think that it's a marvelous idea in terms of helping these students make the transition between high school and college," he says. "We know that nationwide there are gaps between what the high-school graduate takes away and what's required to be successful as a first-time entering freshman in college. Anything that's going to … bridge that gap is going to be a positive step forward."