Credit Check

Kids rack up university credits right there in high school. And their districts and colleges ring up ample revenues in the process. But are the students really learning?

Nancy Kral was confused. A longtime professor of political science at Tomball College, Kral considered herself well versed in college course material. And so far as she could tell, that was exactly why she had been asked to attend a meeting at Cy-Fair High School on that spring day in 1997.

Kral thought she would be evaluating a course, slated for the following semester, to determine if it was of college caliber. Government 2301 was part of a new program that allowed high school students to be taught college material by high school teachers during the regular class day. If the students passed, they received college credit before they ever set foot on a college campus.

But when Kral took a look at high school teacher Barbara Fargarson's proposed outline of the course, she didn't like what she saw. It seemed the course incorporated part of the college's Government 2301 and part of Government 2302 in just one high school semester. This, Kral figured, didn't give Fargarson enough time to properly teach all the 2301 material. Plus, Kral felt the syllabus did not provide enough specific information. Fargarson's syllabus said the course planned to cover political parties. Well, Kral thought, political parties could be taught at any level, from elementary school to graduate school. How could Kral be sure the topic would be taught at the appropriate college level when she had only a syllabus to examine?

Professors Carolyn Davis and Nancy Kral have been fighting concurrent dual credit for four years.
Deron Neblett
Professors Carolyn Davis and Nancy Kral have been fighting concurrent dual credit for four years.

She voiced her concerns to the others in attendance at the meeting: Fargarson, Kral's associate dean William Simcik and LaVelle Shelton, Cypress-Fairbanks ISD's director for curriculum and instruction. "As a professional who has taught this class, I know it is not the equivalent," Kral remembers saying.

"Honey, did you know your administration approved this already?" Kral quotes Shelton as saying. She recalls replying, "First of all, you call me honey -- not good." And then Fargarson started to cry in the meeting. "She was just upset that here I was, and they thought this was a done deal," Kral says.

Kral refused to sign off on the course. Simcik -- his teaching background is in biology, not political science -- later approved the class. For Kral and other faculty members at the North Harris Montgomery Community College District (which includes Tomball College), the Cy-Fair meeting was one of the first signs that something was seriously wrong when it came to the way the community college district was handling the new idea of concurrent dual credit.

Four years later the frustrations have only escalated for Kral and her colleagues.

Their concerns about the program are many. They believe hundreds of high school students both in their own college district and statewide are earning questionable college credit for courses taught in high school -- even after college professors have questioned if the courses are up to par. They say college administrators have written off their complaints, claiming that the angry professors are just a small disgruntled group of academic elitists.

Upset faculty members also counter that these concurrent credit courses are cash cows for the college, now pumping around $1 million into the NHMCCD system each academic year.

Worst of all, the concurrent credit program has been operating statewide for almost six years, with over 11,000 Texas high schoolers racking up college credit, yet there seems to be little state oversight and hardly any tracking of these students' performance in college.

"You have to have reviews, you have assessments, monitoring," says Kral. "And that is what is glaringly absent, except for administrators, who have a very vested interest in perpetuating it, because of the money. There is no academic safeguard in place at all."

High school students taking classes for college credit is hardly new. For ages Texas teenagers have been able to earn college credit by enrolling in advanced placement courses in their high schools. The classes are taught by high school instructors and have no connections with any community colleges.

Students who enroll in the rigorous classes prove their merit by taking a nationally administered AP exam at the end of the school year. Depending on the students' results and what their future universities set as qualifying scores, the students may or may not be able to take credit with them when they start their college careers.

But for students who did not have AP classes available, there were still options to earn credit. Motivated students could take night classes at community colleges, and NHMCCD also worked out a system to send professors to teach in the high schools. According to faculty members, this type of dual credit was carefully monitored. The district held faculty meetings to gather teacher input, and issues were addressed in faculty senate meetings. Professors felt they had a handle on this relatively small program, and because they were teaching the classes and preparing the exams, they felt confident in the caliber of the courses.

In 1995 the options widened dramatically when the Texas legislature voted to expand the program of dual credit.

Supporters argued that many high school seniors in Texas were bored silly during their last year of high school. Instead of killing time, why not make it easy for them to earn college credit by simply bringing the advanced courses to them during the high school day? And there was an incentive for the state: It's cheaper to educate the students in high school than in a state college or university.

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