More than half the freshmen who entered the California State University system last fall were unprepared for college-level math and 43% lacked the skills to handle college English courses, even though they are among the top third of California's high school graduates.
The 2,205 freshman at Cal State Fullerton fared about the same as students systemwide. Last fall, 51% of the freshman class had to take remedial math and 47% required remedial English, said Thomas P. Klammer, associate vice president for academic programs.
The new data, released Wednesday by Cal State officials, shows a continuing rise in the number of freshmen in the 22-campus system who need remedial courses on subjects they should have mastered in high school.
The percentage of unprepared students was the highest since Cal State officials began reliably tracking the data in 1989, although at Fullerton the numbers dipped slightly from the 53% math and 52% English recorded the previous year.
"It is going to take a fundamental revolution in the way California undertakes K-12 education to change those numbers you saw today," said Barry Munitz, chancellor of the Cal State University system. "Tinkering around the edges is not going to help the next generation of Californians."
Munitz and other officials outlined ambitious plans to improve high schools, ranging from better teacher training to setting higher standards for student achievement and dispatching thousands of college students into the schools as tutors and mentors.
Munitz said he was encouraged that the Board of Trustees was willing to embrace the discouraging statistics and not shirk its responsibility as California's primary source of public school teachers. About 60% of the state's teachers are trained at Cal State institutions.
"It's not scapegoating. It's an act of contrition," Munitz said.
Delivering Cal State's first report on remedial education, Senior Vice Chancellor Charles Lindahl unveiled newly revised figures that show 53% of last fall's freshmen needed remedial classes in math and 43% needed English remediation to prepare them for college work.
University officials suggested that the percentage of substandard performers may creep higher still as the university does a better job of rounding up the 10% to 12% of freshmen who manage to "elude" the assessment tests.
The latest set of numbers was based on the performance of about 22,000 of the 25,298 freshmen enrolled through regular admissions. It did not include athletes, talented musicians and others enrolled through special admissions. If they were counted, officials said, the percentages of poor performers would rise a few points.
Klammer said he is not sure why the figures were so high. He suggested the math results reflect the perennially poor performance of elementary and high school students on standardized tests on the subject.
And the English shortcomings may stem from a high population of students for whom English is not their native language.
But Klammer was certain of one thing: "What we would all like is to see entering students ready for college in every way. I think what CSU is saying is we want to get that number [of remedial students] down so that it is very small."
Still, Klammer said remedial instruction should remain as an option for students who do not perform well on the university's placement tests. A study 10 years ago at the campus, he said, showed that students who took remedial courses graduated within six years at about the same rate--59%--as those who did not take such courses.
"I think it's time for another study," he added.
Others in the system also lamented the report's findings.
"This should not happen at a university," said Trustee Ralph R. Pesqueira, who led a campaign two years ago to phase out Cal State's $10-million-a-year remedial education program and deny admission to students who lack college-level math and English skills.
He agreed last year to soften the policy by setting gradual goals to reduce the number of students who need remedial courses to 10% of freshmen by 2007.
"We must help those who are feeding us, namely kindergarten through 12th grade," said Pesqueira, who is chairman of Cal State's educational policy committee. "This is the most important thing we have to do. The more successful we are in helping K-12, the more we can get on with our primary mission: higher education."
Although sobered by the escalating need for remedial college courses, Pesqueira said he was encouraged by steps taken in the first year of a long-term project to improve K-12 education.
Times staff writer Randal C. Archibold contributed to this report.