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Remediation Nation: Why College Students Say High School Needs Change

Nearly one-quarter of students were required to take non-credit remedial courses during their freshman year.

According to a new study by the College Board (PDF), the majority of students who just completed their freshman year of college feel that higher education is essential and worth the time and expense. But they do wish high school had prepared them better.

The majority of these students say that based on what they know now, high schools need to do a better job of setting them up for success in college and the workforce. Nearly one-quarter of students were required to take non-credit remedial courses during their freshman year, while 54 percent reported that their college classes were "more difficult than they expected in terms of what students needed to know and what was required to get good grades."

Are these results simply a matter of students thinking that college would be easier than it turned out to be? For some respondents, maybe. But in many cases, the curriculum taught in high school isn't up to par. My AP physics teacher, for example, was pretty terrible, but almost everyone in class got an A after we wrote extra-credit papers. If I'd decided to take college-level physics, I would've been way behind the students who'd had a really excellent teacher.

Another problem with the current model is that high school students only have to take a limited number of core subjects to graduate, usually four years of English, and a mere two years each of math and science. Yet according to the survey results, 44 percent of students wish they'd taken "more math, science, and writing-intensive" classes so that they'd be better prepared for college-level work. That makes sense; if a student graduates from high school having only taken math during freshman and sophomore years, of course she's not going to be prepared for college-level math. Similarly, if her English classes are based on reading novels and taking multiple-choice tests, her writing skills won't be up to par.

Why don't states require students to take four years of English and math, and three or four years of science? Why isn't there a class dedicated to teaching the fundamentals of writing? For that matter, why don't we require more than two years of history or social studies and foreign language? The students want it—69 percent of respondents say high school graduation requirements are "very" or "pretty" easy, while 37 percent think it should be more difficult to earn a diploma.

And high school isn't the only thing students want to change. Nearly half of survey respondents said they wish they'd worked harder during their high school years. Of course, they can't go back and become more motivated or take tougher classes. Their high schools, on the other hand, can keep the class of 2020 from giving similar responses.

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