Welcome to college, or grade 12 1/2

Rick Diguette is a writer and teaches English at a local college.

Once upon a time, I taught college English at a local community college, but not any more. Don’t get me wrong; I’m still on faculty and scheduled to cover three sections of freshman composition this fall. But it has become obvious to me that I am no longer teaching “college” English.

Every semester, many students in my freshman English classes submit work that is inadequate in almost every respect. Their sentences are thickets of misplaced modifiers, vague pronoun references, conflicting tenses, and subjects and verbs that don’t agree — when they remember, that is, that sentences need subjects. If that were not bad enough, the only mark of punctuation they seem capable of using with any consistency is the period.

I often remind them that even the keenest of insights will never receive due credit if it isn’t expressed in accordance with the rules of grammar and usage. Spelling words correctly, as well as distinguishing words that sound the same but are not, is also a big plus. “Weather” and “whether” are not interchangeable, for example; but even after I point this out, some students continue to make the mistake. And while I’m on the subject, the same goes for “whether” and “rather.”

Although I’ve been tempted to write a column like this before, until now my better angel has helped me resist the temptation. Truth-telling in my profession can also be hazardous to the pursuit of tenure, so that was an added incentive to keep my head down. But recent events make it impossible to ignore yet another consequence of Complete College Georgia, the legislative enactment that will hold Georgia’s public colleges hostage, financially speaking, to their students’ performance.

Over the past year, curriculum committees at the college where I teach were tasked with developing testable Core Concepts that can be used to monitor student progress. And these days, student progress is exclusively measured in terms of retention and graduation, which is what Complete College Georgia is all about.

If Core Concept sounds like Common Core, as in the Common Core State Standards, you have made a valid connection. The sub-par job our public schools do preparing students for college is having a profound effect on what we can expect entering freshmen to know. And of course what we can expect them to know has everything to do with whether we can retain and graduate them.

So what are the testable Core Concepts we have developed to chart student progress in freshman English? Early in the semester, we must first assess their ability to identify a complete sentence ― that is, one with a subject and a verb. After that, somewhere around week five, we find out if they can identify a topic sentence ― the thing that controls the content of a paragraph. Then it’s on to using supporting details by week eight and creating thesis statements by week 11.

If it seems we’ve set the bar rather low, I can only nod my head in agreement. But wait, I am talking about community college students, and everyone knows they are most likely to require some form of remediation upon entering college. While that is true, many of these students transfer to our four-year colleges. Indeed, this is the trend across the country. One study recently found that 45 percent of all students completing a four-year degree were previously enrolled in a two-year institution.

Complete College Georgia is here to stay — or as a friend of mine likes to say, “That horse has left the barn.” But students and their parents need to understand how this legislative enactment is altering the higher education landscape. We may soon need to rename freshman year “grade 12½.”