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On June 10, students at both William Fleming High School and Patrick Henry High School proudly walked across the stage at the Roanoke Civic Center. They wore their caps and gowns. Their parents took photographs. And, it was almost a certainty, they would hear that this day is "not an end, but a beginning—a commencement."
Unfortunately, that may not be entirely true.
To see why, you need only to look at the course catalog of Virginia Western Community College, where many of these high school seniors will enroll. Next fall, a majority of the math classes offered—52.4 percent—will be remedial classes. They include Math 3 (18 sections offered), Math 4 (9 sections), Math 5 (3 sections) or Math 9 (14 sections). Although students will earn a grade in these classes, the course catalog notes: "Credits [are] not applicable toward graduation."
Like far too many other Virginia students, these freshmen arrive at VWCC unprepared to do college-level work. According to information presented at a May meeting of the Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission, Virginia's legislative oversight agency, a majority of Virginia students who enroll in a Virginia community college need to take at least one remedial class.
For many students, those remedial classes put a halt to their dreams of a degree or a career certificate.
The National Center for Education Statistics looked at what happened to students enrolled in remedial classes and noted, "Students who completed any remedial courses were less likely to earn a degree or certificate than students who had no remediation."
How did we get here? It's not the fault of the community colleges, which are just meeting the needs of the students who show up at their doors. Virginia has allowed students to leave high school with what the state calls a standard diploma. They will have been required to take only three years of mathematics.
So they graduate from high school thinking they're ready to do college-level work. And then, when they arrive at the community college, they must enroll in remedial classes. Instead of signing up for courses that will help them transfer to a four-year college or to prepare for their chosen career, they find themselves on a fast track to nowhere. They have to spend time and money on subjects they could—and should—have learned in high school.
It doesn't have to be this way. In 21 states and the District of Columbia, 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.
That turns out to make a huge difference. This year, Regional Education Laboratories Appalachia studied the factors that affect students' enrollment in college—and their success once they get there. The study found, as many others have, that low-income and minority students face greater challenges. But—and this is key—the study also found, "The enrollment gaps between black and white, male and female, and economically disadvantaged and non-economically disadvantaged students narrowed for students with the same diploma type." In other words, students who take the advanced studies diploma are more likely to succeed in college, regardless of other factors that might hinder their college success.
In today's economy, students need more than a high school diploma. Here in Virginia, the global economy of the 21st century is already here. The nonprofit education organization Achieve estimates that although 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).
Virginia's students deserve better than a standard diploma that is really substandard. It's time for Virginia to join other states in holding high expectations for all our students. Because a high school diploma really should mean that students are not just graduating— they are also ready for college or a career.
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