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Many Arizona students underprepared for college

Are Arizona students prepared for college? Recent data indicates they're not.

The 2016 “Condition of College & Career Readiness” from the ACT testing organization shows Arizona behind the national average in all categories: English, reading, math and science. Only 23 percent of Arizona students meet the benchmarks in all four subjects, compared to 26 percent of students nationally.

The 2014-2015 Department of Education’s State Report Card divides students into four categories in regard to the two measures the state used to measure performance, AIMS and AzMERIT tests.

English proficiency was tested in grades 9, 10 and 11 with disappointing results. Less than a third of students in each grade passed the test. In the 11th grade section, 51 percent of the students tested were at the lowest performance level.

Math scores weren’t any better. Just 32 percent of students passed the end-of-course Algebra 1 assessment, 31 percent passed in geometry, and 30 percent passed Algebra 2.

More than half of these graduating students are unable to pass proficiency tests. About 30 percent pass math and English exams. The state does not require passage for graduation, thus the 77 percent high school graduation rate.

But why are students performing so poorly on these exams?

Stefan Swiat, public information officer for the Arizona Department of Education, said Arizona is 49th in the nation in the amount of funding given to schools.

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There are smart students all across the state of Arizona, but rural students can be at a disadvantage, he said. The department is working on the Broadband Initiative to help these schools connect to the internet to give the students more variety in the classes they can take.

“There is the capacity here for high performance.  We just have to raise the mean,” Swiat said.

The agency is focusing on improving education for future generations of students.

“We are working with stakeholders to minimize the gaps [in knowledge],” Swiat said. “We are using research and data to make sure the next generation of students doesn’t fall into that category of low testing scores.”

To do that, they are partnering with organizations like Expect More Arizona and the Zip Code Project to help students stay in school and graduate.

Tucson Unified School District encourages more students to apply to college by waiving the costs to take standardized tests that are often required.

“If the kids go to TUSD they can take the PSAT, the SAT, and the ACT for free,” said Tabitha Chetri, a college and career counselor at Tucson High School.

Students with high scores on these tests are eligible for scholarships like the University of Arizona’s Wildcat Excellence Scholarship.

The problem continues when state students apply for college and need remedial assistance to meet the rigors of their education.

The University of Arizona currently has a 76 percent acceptance rate.

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“It [the acceptance rate] was closer to 80 percent 10 years ago, but has been hovering between 75 and 76 percent the last few years,” said Kasey Urquidez, vice president of enrollment management and student affairs advancement, and dean of undergraduate admissions. The acceptance rate for Arizona residents is slightly higher, at about 80 percent, according to Urquidez.

“We only admit students we believe are ready for the rigor of college,” Urquidez said. “Our main goal is to graduate a student, not just enroll them, so we look closely at who we admit. With that said, we know not all students excel in every single area, so we offer opportunities for academic learning support to ensure that all students who enroll have the opportunity to be successful.”

Math 100, taught at the UA since 2010, prepares students for university-level math. Below Math 100 is Math 100 AX.

Michelle Woodward, course director for Math 100 and Math 100 AX, said every year between 75 and 80 percent of the students go on to place into a university-level math class.

“Approximately a third of incoming freshmen place at this level,” Woodward said.

The program serves about 3,000 students each year.

“The whole purpose of Math 100 is to get placement into college algebra,” said Cheryl Ekstrom, academic services coordinator for the math department.

Students who score between 30 and 70 percent on the “Prep for college algebra” placement test are placed in Math 100. Students scoring 29 percent or below go to Math 100 AX.

What math classes students choose to take in high school can be part of the problem, Woodward said.

“The last year of math tends to be statistics,” Woodward said. “They’re not doing a lot of algebra, then they take a placement test that’s very algebra-based.”

She recommended that students review algebra concepts before taking the placement test.

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Taylor Brestel/Arizona Sonora News

Students sit in a classroom at the University of Arizona.