A recent report showed more than one in three Hawaii public school graduates need remedial math or English when they enter the University of Hawaii System.

As it turns out, that statistic puts Hawaii right up there with the national average.

“I’m a part of a lot of these national organizations, and everybody’s challenged by remediation and unsatisfied with where we are,” said Peter Quigley, associate vice president for academic affairs of University of Hawaii System community colleges, where UH students take their remedial courses. “Although we’re not happy with our number, it’s not disproportionately out of line with national numbers.”

The onus is now on the Hawaii Department of Education and university leaders to match high school graduation requirements with college expectations.

But so far, the Hawaii State Board of Education has resisted attempts to raise graduation standards. Board leaders have refused to take up the issue on a new college- and career-ready diploma proposed by the Hawaii Department of Education, even though college and career readiness are central to the state’s Race to the Top efforts. Race to the Top leaders hope the new appointed board will be more receptive to the proposed diploma.

Meanwhile, the university is doing what it can to smooth and speed up the remediation process for incoming students.

Remediation = More Money + More Time + Higher College Dropout Rates

Hawaii’s public high schools are especially failing its graduates in the areas of math and reading.

Thirty-five percent of those who go on to UH end up enrolling in remedial English courses and 38 percent take remedial math, according to a report compiled by Hawaii P-20 Partnerships for Education, an organization dedicated to streamlining Hawaii education from preschool through college. The report does not have data on how public school grads are doing at other universities.

Remediation is costly for both students and colleges, and it can contribute to dropout rates.

Remediation in reading is considered “the most serious barrier to degree completion,” according to the National Center for Education Statistics, the leading federal organization for collecting and analyzing education data.

It costs the nation about $1.4 billion each year to provide remedial courses to under-prepared high school graduates, according to a 2006 report by the Alliance for Excellent Education. The report estimates the economy loses another $2.3 billion annually in earning potential because of students who drop out of college.

Remedial education costs for Hawaii public school graduates at UH

Subject Annual Cost per Year
Remedial Math $302,000
Remedial Writing $250,000
Remedial Reading $173,000

Nationally, 20 percent of first-year undergraduates enroll in remedial courses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. But that number includes private-school graduates and those enrolled at private colleges. It also does not specify in which subject areas the students took remedial courses. Some colleges have different definitions of what courses qualify as remedial, too.

Because the P-20 report calculates the remediation rate for only Hawaii public school graduates who go on to UH schools, it’s difficult to compare it directly with national data.

“We would all need a little more information to make a good judgment about whether the remediation rate for Hawaii students is significantly higher or lower than the national rate,” said P-20 executive director Tammi Chun.

Chun hopes the report opens a dialogue about how Hawaii can better prepare its students for college and careers.

“I would say that Hawaii’s not alone in having this as a concern,” Chun said. “It’s a problem that is shared by a lot of states, and UH and the (department of education) are doing a lot to help resolve that issue.”

Double-edged Solution

The solution has two sides, Chun explained.

The education department wants to ensure it is providing the right education to match what will be expected of graduates when they reach college. The university system wants to ensure it has set the appropriate expectations and provides the necessary support for students once they arrive at college.

P-20 is helping both the K-12 and the college side by collecting data about things like the remediation rate and what skill sets Hawaii employers are seeking in their future hires.

For its part, the education department is working to develop higher graduation standards, Chun said. It will need the board’s help in passing those standards, though, and the current board has been unwilling to even vote on the new college- and career-ready diploma.

Current board chairman Garrett Toguchi is skeptical of the proposed diploma. He told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser last month that the department needs to spend more time on educational foundations and less time on raising expectations and graduation requirements. But the current elected board will be eventually replaced with one appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie, and its members may be more receptive to the proposed diploma.

On the college side, the UH System is developing programs and techniques to make remediation faster, more effective, more affordable and even more pleasant, Quigley told Civil Beat.

After UH began tracking student success, its community college system launched a series of initiatives to improve student achievement. Many of the changes are now being considered for system-wide usage. A few examples Quigley shared:

  • At Honolulu Community College, a computer-aided math course called ALEKS improved students’ completion rate in remedial math from 44 percent to 79 percent.

  • Maui College, using online tutoring program Smarthinking, saw a completion rate in its remedial math course of 98 percent, compared with 75 percent of students who completed remedial math without the program.

  • Leeward Community College received a $40,000 grant to develop new methods for teaching remedial math.

“I work with state policy organizations across the nation, and we have one of the most exciting and — I think — promising approaches to remediation here,” Quigley said. “We are coming to terms with the fact that we have to reframe the equation in a way that simply yields more successful students sooner. We can’t afford to have the rates that we have now.”

About the Author