Wendy Pedroso has never liked math, but for most of elementary school and middle school she got B’s in the subject. It wasn’t until ninth grade at Miami Southwest Senior High School, when Pedroso took algebra, that she hit a wall. In particular, she struggled with understanding fractions.

“I kept getting stuck in the same place,” Pedroso, 20, recalled recently. She failed the class, and worried that she’d never get to go to college. Pedroso sought help from tutors, took algebra again over the summer and passed. She went on to graduate from high school in 2011.

Pedroso enrolled at Miami Dade College’s campus in Kendall. Like all of Florida’s community and state colleges, Miami Dade accepts anyone with a high school diploma or G.E.D. But students must take a placement test to assess their basic skills. Pedroso’s struggles with math caught up with her again: She failed the math section of the test.

It meant that she had to take a remedial math class. The course cost Pedroso $300 like any other class at Miami Dade College but did not count as credit toward graduation. Although she could take college-level courses in other subjects, Pedroso couldn’t begin taking college-level courses in math until she passed the remedial course.

Pedroso was embarrassed.

“I thought that it was going to be very hard to get through college,” she said.

Across Florida, remedial classes at community and state colleges are full with students like Pedroso. More than half of the high school graduates who took the college placement test had to take at least one remedial class. And while many of those students struggle with basic reading and writing skills, the subject they’re most unprepared for in college is math.

In the 2010-11 school year, some 125,042 Florida college students needed to take a remedial math class, an investigation by the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida has found. That number has been growing for some time, and is more than double the number requiring remedial classes in reading (54,489) or writing (50,906).

Much of the growth in remedial math classes comes from students age 20 and over, who have gone to college amid a tough job market. Far removed from the math drills of their youth, their basic skills have gone rusty, if they had them to begin with.

But the math crisis is also acute among students coming to college straight out of high school. Some 44 percent of high school graduates who took the Florida College System’s entrance exam failed the math section in 2010-11. Less than a third failed in reading and writing.

“I don’t know what happened with these people that come from high school,” said Isis Casanova de Franco, a remedial math professor at Miami Dade College. Casanova de Franco said her granddaughter in second grade can add but many of her college students cannot.

“It’s very difficult to understand how they don’t even know how to add or subtract whole numbers,” she said.

The situation in Florida is similar to what’s happening across the United States. A 2010 Columbia University study of 57 community colleges in seven states found that one in two incoming students needed to take remedial math courses.

Another study by Harvard University researchers looked around the world. It found that only 32 percent of U.S. high school students graduating in 2011 were proficient in math. Of 65 nations that participated in the Harvard survey, the U.S. ranked 32nd. Vinton Gray Cerf, an Internet entrepreneur quoted in the Harvard report, said the U.S. is not producing enough innovators because of a deteriorating K-12 education system. He also blamed a national culture that doesn’t value engineering and science.

The culture problem is a deep one and won’t be easy to solve. A number of Florida college students interviewed for this series, including Wendy Pedroso, quickly volunteered that they “hate” math. Many of Florida’s public school students never master basic math skills early in their education, creating a deficiency that causes them to struggle with the subject throughout their educational career.

Jakeisha Thompson, a math instructor at Miami Dade College’s downtown Miami campus, sees it every day. “What I found with those students is that many of them have had a hatred for math for as long as they can remember,” Thompson said. “And it goes all the way back to elementary school.”

David Rock, dean of the school of education at the University of Mississippi and a math teacher, said cultural antagonism toward math also affects parents’ expectations. “People don’t want to say ‘my child is illiterate,’ but they have no problem to saying ‘my child is not good at math,’” Rock said. “It has become socially acceptable, and we have to do something before it gets out of control.”

Many experts say one answer lies in re-thinking how math is taught in K-12 schools. Math is a challenging subject that requires critical-thinking skills — traits not often emphasized and developed in the U.S. public school system, unlike in China and Japan.

How teachers approach math lessons also is crucial, because they need to make lessons interesting to engage students and help them succeed. Teaching techniques such as memorization and repetition have contributed to math’s reputation as a dreadful subject in the U.S., said Richard Rusczyk, founder of Art of Problem Solving. That’s a school in California that focuses on creating interactive educational opportunities for avid math students.

“Math is a creative discipline,” Rusczyk said. “It’s not fun if you have to memorize it, and that way it’s not easy to learn.”

Rusczyk said many students who struggle with math throughout their K-12 careers are like Pedroso — they never mastered basic math skills. “What I found out by working with high school students is to go back where the problem started,” he said. “Sometimes it’s not algebra but the fact that the student never learned how to deal with fractions.”

The use of calculators in classrooms is part of the problem. Students are allowed to use calculators when taking the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT – the test they have to pass in order to graduate from high school.

Casanova de Franco, the Miami Dade College remedial math teacher, said many students are using calculators before they’ve mastered basic math skills.

“Calculators are good when you know how to do everything,” Casanova de Franco said. “But it shouldn’t be used to supplement thinking.”

Another problem is that high school math programs are not geared toward college readiness. The FCAT, for example, tests only 10^{th}-grade level math skills. The Florida Department of Education says a new test coming in a couple of years will be more aligned to college standards.

And up until now, students have been allowed to graduate high school without taking a math class higher than Algebra 1. This is the last year students will be allowed to graduate high school without taking more advanced classes. The hope is that requiring more advanced math classes will mean more students are prepared for college.

But high school teacher Katerine Santana says that alone won’t solve the problem.

She teaches Algebra 2 at Miami Northwestern Senior High. Like professor Casanova de Franco, she said many of her students can’t add or subtract. This poses a challenge for math teachers because students who have fallen behind and lack foundational skills tend to lose interest in the subject.

“Early on, if we instill that math is part of our daily life, I think that kids are going to have more of a positive attitude towards it,” Santana said. “Because in high school, when they’re juniors and are going to graduate next year, it’s very hard to convince them that this is an important subject.”

Some schools are experimenting with hiring a new kind of math teacher. Traditionally, students in elementary schools received math lessons from generalists, who did not necessarily have any expertise in teaching math. But in recent years, school districts have hired mathematicians and math coaches throughout the K-12 system.

Math coaches work closely with teachers and students to build math skills in the classroom. They give struggling students one-on-one attention to help them focus on areas where they need help and work with teachers to design effective math lessons. Many school districts in Florida hired math and reading coaches when federal economic stimulus funding became available in 2009.

The new hires may help. A three-year study in Virginia that ended in 2008 found that math coaches in elementary school have a positive impact on student achievement over time.

Wendy Pedroso blames the K-12 public school system and her teachers for not preparing her for college. Pedroso admits she became too dependent on calculators in her high school math classes. But she said she was a vocal student in high school and frequently asked questions about algebra and fractions.

“I needed to understand why and how things worked,” Pedroso said of one of her math teachers. “But she didn’t take the time to explain things and moved onto the next subject even if we didn’t understand.”

Maria P. de Armas, is assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Miami Dade County Public Schools, where Pedroso was a student. According to de Armas, Miami schools have instituted programs to identify students who are struggling with math and other subjects. But de Armas noted that meeting the needs of a diverse and economically depressed population — Miami is the sixth-poorest city in the United States — is challenging.

When asked if she thinks the public school system fails students, de Armas said: “I emphatically feel that we have not failed. I feel that nothing is perfect, and there’s always room for improvement.”

Shakira Lockett, another product of Miami schools, said the onus for learning math ultimately lies with students themselves. Lockett, 22, recently graduated from Miami Dade College after taking seven remedial classes. Three of those classes were in math. Lockett didn’t blame her teachers. She blamed herself for not working hard enough at math while in high school.

“Sometimes I felt lost in math, but I feel that the teachers were OK in public schools,” Lockett said. “I was able to get the proper teaching in the schools. But I think it was up to me also to go home and study. I just hated math so much.”

Wendy Pedroso’s negative attitude toward math has changed a bit. After dropping out of her first remedial math class at Miami Dade College, she passed the lower-level remedial math class last spring among the top students in her class. The extra coursework taught her discipline and studying skills, she said. She has conquered her fears of fractions and doesn’t rely on a calculator anymore. “I see the difference in my work,” Pedroso said.

While Pedroso hasn’t declared a major, she acknowledged that her experience has given her the confidence to consider choosing a field of study that requires math. She’s considering studying business, criminal justice or advertising.

“I’m not as scared at looking at other areas as I was before,” Pedroso said. “I’ve got a lot of more options.”

*These stories are the result of a reporting partnership between StateImpact Florida and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting. Chat with FCIR's McNelly Torres and StateImpact Florida's Sarah Gonzalez about their reporting on Florida's growing need for remedial education on Wednesday, 12/19 at 4pm. *

On the Florida Roundup: Florida has its new Education Commissioner, former Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett. We’ll learn why Jeb Bush fans are thrilled and the teachers unions are not. NPR’s StateImpact Florida reporter Sarah Gonzalez will tell us why many of Florida’s high school graduates are not ready for college work. And we hear from you on Florida’s growing need for remedial education and what the purpose of high school should be. Tweet us @WLRN.

Friday is deadline day for Florida to declare whether it will set-up its own healthcare exchange under Obamacare. But state leaders remain ambivalent about the plan. What happens if they don’t move forward?

Thousands of voters who sent in absentee ballots are receiving news that their ballots were rejected. Florida’s Secretary of State tours South Florida counties to find out why so many things went wrong this election cycle. Miami Dade and Broward county election supervisors want more flexibility over early voting hours and sites.

The 2014 governor race has begun - Charlie Crist switches teams, officially becoming a Democrat. We find out why state Democrats are less enthused than the national party.

Host Phil Latzman speaks with journalists Tim Padgett of Time Magazine, Steve Rothaus of the Miami Herald and Ashley Lopez of WLRN-Miami Herald News to review the week’s news. WLRN's social media editor Danny Rivero curates the online discussion.

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 found having to take remedial classes discouraging.

“It makes you feel dumb,” Lockett said. “And you ask yourself, ‘Is there something wrong with me?’”

Lockett’s experience actually is quite normal 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 educationbefore 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, Lockett’s school. There, 63 percent of high school graduates take at least one remedial course upon enrollment. Many of them are, like Lockett, shocked to find out that they weren’t ready for college despite having a high school diploma.

**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 curriculum gap between what high school students are taught and what they need to know going into college. And it’s been an ongoing problem that state educators have not addressed until recently.

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush has been a proponent of the state’s high school exit exam – the FCAT. But now the conservative education advocate admits 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 in an interview.

Bush said it’s evident the test is flawed since many high school students can’t graduate because they can’t pass the FCAT, which only tests 10^{th}-grade level academic skills.

“Or worse yet, as you said, 50 percent of our students need remedial work to be able to take a college course,” he said.

Lenore Rodicio is Vice Provost for Student Achievement Initiatives at Miami Dade College. She said until high school curriculum aligns with college curriculum, state and community colleges need to fill in the gaps by offering remedial courses, also known as “developmental education.”

“One of the downfalls of developmental education,” Rodicio said, “is that students get stuck in a cycle where they don’t pass their courses and have to take multiple semesters of the developmental courses before they go in to college-level work.”

Remedial classes do not count toward a college degree. Each class runs an entire semester. And students cannot enroll in college classes until they pass all their remedial courses. But Rodicio said offering remedial courses allows Florida colleges to keep their doors open and give all students the opportunity to get a college education.

A down side, Rodicio said, is that students who fail a remedial class are less likely to make it to the finish line of graduation.

At Miami Dade College, the final project for students in most remedial writing classes is to write a single paragraph by the end of a semester.

“We’re looking to see that students can focus a topic, maintain a main idea, develop that point, support that point, use transitions,” said Associate Professor Michelle Riley. And she said it’s very difficult for many of them.

During a recent remedial reading class, Riley showed students a sentence on the white board.

It read: “The bandage was wound around the wound.”

The professor asked students to read the sentence aloud. Many got stuck on the last word – pronouncing the word “wound” (sounds like “boomed”) the same way they pronounce “wound” (sounds like “ground”).

The course is one step above the lowest remedial reading level offered at Miami Dade College. Students study the difference between denotations and connotation – the difference between a word’s dictionary definition and its cultural or emotional association.

Miami high school teacher Vallet Tucker said she isn’t surprised to hear what students are learning in remedial college courses. She teaches honors English at Miami Northwestern and said her average 10^{th}-grade student reads at a 7^{th}-grade reading level.

“And I have honors students,” she pointed out.

“This is 10^{th}-grade material and they’re not there yet. The vocabulary is not where it should be –the stamina for reading,” she said.

Standardized testing has been a big part of public education in Florida for more than a decade. The Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test – the FCAT – debuted in 1998. It’s used as a tool to assess high school students, determine their class placement and decide whether they can graduate from high school.

But over time, FCAT has also become a management tool. Students’ scores on that test now determine school funding levels, teacher evaluations, and starting this year teacher pay. FCAT scores also help determine whether a school itself stays open or is shut down for poor performance.

Critics of the FCAT say teachers, under pressure to help students achieve higher test scores, have emphasized test-taking skills over core subject lessons. Students are taught to memorize facts and eliminate answers on multiple-choice questions.

“From the time a child is in kindergarten, every option that a child is given has four answers for which two or three can be easy eliminated,” said Raquel Regalado, a Miami-Dade school board member. “Unfortunately, life doesn’t give you four options for which two or three can be easily eliminated. And that’s the problem.”

The FCAT has become more rigorous over the years in reading, writing and math. But the material doesn’t align with what is tested on the college entrance exam.

Policy makers have understood this for a while. In 2006, the research arm of the Florida Legislature, widely known by its acronym OPPAGA,* *studied remedial education in community colleges. The study concluded that the FCAT created a disconnect between the skills taught in public schools and those needed in college.

Success on the FCAT, the state accountability office found, “does not ensure students are prepared for college-level work.” OPPAGA noted that despite previous reports pointing out the same problems, state education leaders and legislators had not reviewed the effectiveness of the FCAT.

Matthew Ladner, a policy and research adviser for Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education, is a defender of FCAT. He said the test, emphasized when Bush was governor, helped increase the high school graduation rate. In the 2010-2011 school year, Florida graduated the most students, and students of color, in the state’s history. Lander sees it as not surprising that some of those students would struggle at the college level.

“So we should not view the fact that these students then go on to an institution of higher education and have to take a remedial course necessarily as a catastrophic failure,” Ladner said. “This is sort of a process on the way to success in the sense that a lot of those students in Florida higher education institutions today would have dropped out of high school 15 years ago.”

The increasing number of people entering college, he said, may be a factor in rising remedial education numbers.

In Florida, the current situation has contributed to a damaging illusion among many students. Some who excel in public school and do well on the FCAT graduate thinking they are well prepared for higher education, only to find they’re not ready at all.

Shakira Lockett felt she was ready for college. The reality for her, though, was that she needed extensive remedial work at Miami Dade College. She finally completed her two-year journalism program in May – two years later than she’d expected going in.

It wasn’t easy. “I had to push myself where I need to be to make my parents proud of me and to make myself proud,” Lockett said. “Because I really want to be something in life.”

Many students can’t make it all the way through. Research shows that students who require remedial education are less likely to earn a degree than students who don’t require remediation.

Lockett can attest to this. She still remembers when her first remedial class instructor challenged her classmates to continue to make it to the finish line. Many of her classmates went on to the next remedial course with her. But when Lockett finally got her degree, those students didn’t share the stage with her.

“None of my friends were behind me,” Lockett said. “None of the people that I knew. It was just me. And I felt really, really accomplished.”

*In a series of stories, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting and StateImpact Florida will explore the growing need for remedial education among Florida’s high school graduates and older students.*