Shakira Lockett was a pretty good student in elementary, middle and high school. The Miami-Dade County native says she typically earned As and Bs in English classes.
Math was always something of a struggle for Lockett. Still, she got through her high school exit exam with a passing grade and went on to graduate from Coral Gables Senior High School in 2008.
She went straight to Miami Dade College. Then, something unexpected happened: She flunked the college placement exams in all three subjects — reading, writing and math. That didn’t mean she couldn’t attend the school; all state and community colleges in Florida have an open-door policy, which means everyone is accepted. But it did mean she had to take remedial courses before she could start college-level work.
“When they told me I had to start a Reading 2 and Reading 3 class, I was like, ‘Serious?’ ” Lockett said. “Because I’ve always been good at reading.”
Lockett, who is now 22, spent a year-and-a half taking remedial classes before she could start her first college-level class to count toward her degree in mass communication and journalism. The seven extra courses cost her $300 each.
Lockett’s experience is common in Florida. In 2010-11, 54 percent of students coming out of high school failed at least one subject on the Florida College System’s placement test, according to an investigation by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida. That meant nearly 30,000 students — high school graduates — had to take at least one remedial course in college.
Florida’s remedial education needs are much greater than in many other states. Nationwide, about 40 percent of all first-year students need remedial education before they can enroll in credit-bearing courses, according to the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, D.C.-based policy and advocacy group.
The numbers are worse at Miami Dade College, where 63 percent of high school graduates take at least one remedial course upon enrollment.
The cost of being unprepared
There’s a price to all these students showing up at Florida’s 28 community and state colleges unprepared. The students must pay for — and the state must subsidize — the remedial coursework. The costs of remedial education, shared by students and the state, have jumped from $118 million in 2004-05 to $168 million in 2010-11.
Most of the state’s cost is spent on non-traditional students — students who return to college after being out of school for a while. But according the Florida Department of Education, about one-third of the cost of remedial education is spent on students who are fresh out of Florida high schools.
Education experts say part of the problem is that a high school diploma has never been the same thing as a certificate of college readiness. There’s a gap between what high school students are taught and what they need to know going into college.
Former Gov. Jeb Bush has been a proponent of the state’s high school exit exam — the FCAT. But now the conservative education advocate concedes the test was never meant to determine whether students are prepared for college.
“It’s really a gateway to graduate from high school, not to be college ready,” he told StateImpact Florida.