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Write of Passage

The writing proficiency test college freshmen must pass to continue their studies strikes fear in the heart of many students, creating a demand for special classes that will get them up to speed.


RIVERSIDE — Dong Trang loves calculus because, well, "it's easy," he says. So are chemistry and biology.

It's English that gives him fits.

And because of that, Trang, who grew up speaking Vietnamese at home in Highland Park, has been on pins and needles as a freshman at the University of California campus here. He must pass the university's writing exam--soon--if he is going to continue as a sophomore in the fall.

"You feel the pressure," Trang said. "If you don't pass it, you know that you are going to get kicked out."

About 200 students at UC Riverside find themselves in that precarious position this spring. Some shuffle around campus, dejected. Others press on in tutorial sessions to prepare for the exam that has them analyze a short passage from a book and then write an essay.

The idea is to see if they know the conventions of the English language--and if they have the basic reading and writing skills needed to do university-level work.

Even at the University of California, the state's elite public college system, each campus has legions of students who can't pass such a test without extra help.

So each campus has a remedial program to help those--like Trang--who have failed to master what they should have in high school. The university calls it "Subject A," for the ability to use English "correctly, clearly and pertinently."

UC officials, for reasons of funding and stature, are careful to avoid the R-word. But students and faculty know what it is.

"We redefine it and say we aren't offering remedial course work, but of course we are," said George Hanson, head of UC San Diego's Subject A program.

The state Legislature has steadfastly refused to fund remedial education classes at the University of California, saying that's the role of the community college.

So UC San Diego and UC Davis turn over such instruction to the faculty from nearby community colleges.

Six other UC campuses have their own instructors handle special classes. They insist that these are university-level English courses, but include special tutorial sessions for students who need extra instruction. Anything that seems remotely remedial, said UC budget chief Larry Hershman, is covered by student fees, not tax dollars from the Legislature.


The debate over such remedial programs is a hot topic across the country. The trustees of the City University of New York last week decided to phase out remedial courses by 2002 and bar admission to students who cannot pass exams in reading, writing and math.

California State University trustees considered and then rejected such an idea a few years back, opting instead for an aggressive effort to help public high schools teach students the basic skills before they get to college.

Yet no such debate has raged at the University of California. Hundreds of freshmen enroll every fall in special classes because they have not yet met the Subject A requirement, either by passing the essay exam given to high school seniors in May, or by scoring well on standardized tests.

"There is no question in my mind that they belong at the university," said George Gadda, a UCLA lecturer and head of the UC system's Subject A examination committee. "They are highly intelligent, but for a variety of reasons they have not reached a level of competence in their writing."

UC Berkeley, the most selective campus, had 491 freshmen last fall who needed extra help. UCLA had 732 of these "Sub-A" students, as they are sometimes called.

But nowhere has the program swelled more rapidly than at UC Riverside, where 1,187 students--a whopping 61% of the freshmen class--were shepherded last September into a special program to improve their reading and writing.

As the academic year unfolded, a majority of these students picked up the skills they needed to write a satisfactory essay in two hours--a timed-writing test given as a mid-term and again as a final exam for the class.

But some had to return in the winter quarter to try again. And students who didn't pass in the winter are now enrolled in a third and final class.

Under rules set down by the Academic Senate, if freshmen don't satisfy the writing requirement in three quarters, they're out.


Last year, about 85 students faced the spring deadline. Two dozen washed out. This year, UC Riverside faculty are alarmed that about 200 have yet to pass as the spring quarter gallops to a close this month.

"Our instructors are doing everything they can to save these students," said John Briggs, director of the UC Riverside program.

Lecturer Helen Deese floated around Olmsted Hall's basement computer lab in her white shoes, offering cheery advice to a dozen freshmen struggling with fundamentals of English composition.

"I want you to start all over and answer the question directly," she told a freshman. "Describe it in your own words."

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