Alabama Pays When Students Fail

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 22, 2004

If you are the parent of a student who recently graduated from an Alabama high school you may soon discover that your son or daughter is not as prepared for work or college as you had hoped.

In fact, if your child will be attending college this fall and you are planning to foot the bill, you may wind up paying for the same education twice but at a much higher cost the second time around.

In The Cost of Remedial Education: How Much Alabama Pays When Students Fail to Learn Basic Skills by Dr. Christopher W. Hammons, a study just released by the Alabama Policy Institute, our research shows that a third of all high school graduates in this state do not have the basic reading, writing or math skills required for college or for entering the work force.

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Moreover, 44 percent of freshmen entering our colleges who graduated from an Alabama high school in 2001 were enrolled in one or more remedial education classes.

Frankly, the fact that so many of our high school students are graduating without a good high school education is not news.

It is the enormous costs to Alabama taxpayers and businesses as a result that has gone unreported.

Based on data from state and national sources, the API study’s estimate of the economic impact on Alabama’s colleges and businesses is between $380 and $540 million per year.

Of this, over $85 million is spent by Alabama’s colleges and universities to teach college students material they should have learned in high school.

The $85 million does not include the costs to parents paying for their children to take remedial courses that do not count toward a degree yet cost just as much as for-credit courses.

In effect, those parents who are paying for their children’s education are paying twice: through their tax dollars to the public schools their children attended and then again at the college they attend at a much greater cost.

The need for remedial courses may also help explain why it often takes five years instead of four to get a bachelor’s degree.

It should be noted that not all remedial education costs incurred by our colleges are related to poorly prepared high school students.

Our colleges and universities provide remedial education classes for other students such as adults who started college years after completing high school and for students with various learning disabilities who simply need some extra help.

But after taking that into account, the biggest portion of the remedial education costs is still the result of poor high school preparation.

Specifically, Alabama high school students are poorly prepared because they are not getting a solid foundation in reading and mathematics at an early level.

In the last legislative session the Alabama Legislature began addressing the problem by appropriating $40 million to fund the Alabama Reading Initiative.

The Legislature should follow up by ensuring that the Reading Initiative is fully funded each year and by expanding the Alabama Math Initiative, particularly for schools that are consistently among the poorest performing in the state.

Another problem contributing to the poor college and work readiness of Alabama students is the Alabama Graduation Exam that every student is required to pass before they can receive a diploma.

Unfortunately, while the graduation exam is generally written on the 11th grade level, some of the skills being tested are actually at the 7th and 8th grade levels.

Also, Alabama students can take the exam at the beginning of their 10th grade year and if they pass it, they are considered qualified for a high school diploma.

If they fail, they can take the test up to six times over the next two years which inevitably results in teachers focusing on teaching students how to pass the test. Passing the exam, consequently, does not truly reflect students’ mastery of high school level-material, their readiness to learn college-level material or their capacity to perform well in the work force.

Alabama could significantly improve the quality of public school education by ensuring that the Reading Initiative is fully funded each year and by expanding the Math Initiative.

The state must also make the high school graduation exam more demanding to ensure that our high schools graduates are prepared for college or the work place.

In the meantime, the taxpayers, businesses and parents of Alabama will continue to pay the education bill twice for thousands of Alabama students.