Wednesday, March 09, 2005

College, university freshmen lack math, English skills

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2005.03.09
PAGE: D1 / Front
BYLINE: Sarah Schmidt
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen
ILLUSTRATION: Colour Photo: Chris Mikula, The Ottawa Citizen / Carleton'sArmitage says math is a particularly worrisome area.


College, university freshmen lack math, English skills: educators: Post-secondary officials say ill-prepared students force schools to set up remedial classes


Ottawa's colleges and universities are facing a prickly challenge in dealing with increasing numbers of ill-prepared freshman students who require remedial classes in everything from English to math.

Educators at these and other Canadian institutions say it's time to air this dirty little secret about post-secondary education. Professors at campuses across the country have long grumbled about the poor writing and math skills of some of their students, but the growing gap between expectations and skills is forcing institutions throughout Canada, including those in Ottawa, to take action.

"We're receiving lots of anecdotal reports about the lack of preparedness of students, particularly with math," said John Armitage, associate dean of undergraduate affairs in the faculty of science at Carleton University.

According to officials at Algonquin College, administrators of the print journalism program don't even bother to look at applicants' grades when reviewing applications. Instead, they admit students who score at least 22 out of 30 on a language diagnostic test that reviews basic grammar and spelling and requires a short writing sample. The results are hardly stellar, says program co-ordinator Joe Banks.

No more than two in 10 applying straight out of a high school, or as mature students, meet the admissions threshold. But even one in four applicants with a university degree is unsuccessful.

This concern with students' skills is certainly not confined to Ottawa. Across the country, diagnostic math and literacy tests for incoming students are becoming more common. Those who fail to meet a certain standard are often sent to remedial classes so they won't fall behind in the first weeks of college or university.

In other cases, schools are dumbing down first-year English courses to include segments on basic grammar, composition and writing skills once reserved for high school classrooms.

"The competency level of students coming into our programs has dropped over the years," said Janet Gambrell, associate dean of the school of community and liberal studies at Sheridan College, with campuses in Brampton and Oakville.

"What we don't want to do is point fingers and blame our high school colleagues, saying, 'Why are you graduating those folks?' " Ms. Gambrell added.

This acknowledgement of inadequately prepared students comes as provincial governments expand access to post-secondary education in the wake of a space crunch that saw entrance requirements rise at one time to A-level grades at many universities.

Colleges, meanwhile, are starting to hand out applied degrees in technological fields, in addition to their regular diplomas, even as they lobby provincial governments to make it easier for their students to transfer into university programs, raising concerns about academic standards.

After noticing that many freshmen struggled with calculus, the University of Ottawa required all students enrolled this year in the first-year calculus course to take a diagnostic test. Professors recommended that many attend catchup workshops after the average mark on the diagnostic test was a dismal 49.5 per cent.

Professors at Carleton University have noticed a similar trend. After fielding complaints about ill-prepared freshmen, a few weeks ago the university struck a committee to probe why some appear to lack the knowledge required to succeed, especially in math.

Preliminary discussions with high school math teachers resulted in one important discovery: Students balk at taking a rigorous math course in their final year of high school for fear of lowering their final average, and jeopardizing their chance of getting into university.

Elsewhere, Ryerson University has instituted new requirements in the faculty of engineering. Twenty-one per cent of students were sent to a remedial English course after failing to meet the threshold on an English test, while 14 per cent received extra help in math.

Sheridan College is hosting a workshop next month for high school teachers to help bridge the competency gap. In the fall, the college expects to start a pilot program to test the writing skills of incoming students and send those in need of remediation to a basic English class.

Nipissing University in North Bay is also planning to bring in a placement test in September 2006.

If incoming students fail to meet basic competency in reading comprehension, logic and essay writing skills, they will have to take remedial classes.

Andrew Dean, Nipissing's dean of arts and science, said the university is revamping its writing competency test from a graduation requirement to a post-admissions diagnostic test. He said it's because so many students are struggling to meet the graduation requirement, and the school wants to catch problems earlier and provide support.

Currently, at any given sitting of the writing competency test, half fail to score the necessary one out of three, said Mr. Dean.

"I'm amazed, actually, by some of the writing skills of some of the students -- (the writing) is full of grammatical mistakes and there's a lack of clear flow."

David Warrick, who retired last year after a lengthy career as an English instructor at Humber College in Toronto, said there is another issue -- high school grade inflation.

He said 32 per cent of the college's successful applicants this year were identified as potential candidates for remedial help in writing after scoring less than 80 out of 120 on the sentence skills section of the college's computer placement test.

"The system isn't delivering. The learning expectations that are listed in the curriculum are not being met. The knowledge and skills required of these high school graduates is insufficient. It's incomplete, but they're still getting the marks."

The degree of student unpreparedness is an uneasy topic for some institutions. Mr. Warrick, for example, observed that some institutions are wary of disclosing information about their students' remedial needs.

He said fundraising considerations, corporate branding strategies and public relations campaigns seem to trump other considerations. Under-prepared students and remedial workshops are hardly image enhancers, he said.

"Quality is now equated with customer satisfaction instead of measurable performance," said Mr. Warrick.


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