Editor's note: Following is the winning essay in the latest contest for high school students sponsored by the Ventura County Edition of The Times. Contestants were asked to address the following question: "About half of this year's freshmen at Cal State campuses failed basic reading and math exams. Who's to blame for this poor performance and what should be done?"
When nearly half of Cal State University freshmen fail basic math and reading proficiency tests, students, parents and teachers must admit there are deep problems in California's education system.
There are just too many students per teacher, and there is just not enough time for individual attention. It seems many letter grades in our public school system are freebies, unearned. Lack of parental participation in children's education and lowered college admission standards can also be aiding this decline in academic test scores.
Many parents think that as long as their child is getting high grades, there is no reason to look at homework or even ask about school. Parents need to make sure their child's work is reasonable and challenging. With roughly half of marriages ending in divorce, many parents are bringing children up alone. Too often single parents must spend most of their time at work to keep the family safe and healthy, and there is little time to participate actively in a child's education.
I am a student at El Camino High School, the Ventura Unified School District's independent-study program. The weekly individual attention I get is much more valuable than the 10 to 15 minutes of personal time I got with my teachers in my former, traditional school. Together, my teacher and I can address problems, review assignments, confer and set goals for my schoolwork and plan for my upcoming graduation. In contrast, with a student-teacher ratio of 30 or 35 to 1 at traditional public schools, there is scarce time for individual attention.
Among the criteria for admission to a Cal State university is a B average, eliminating the requirement of a qualifying score on the SAT or ACT. A student can easily coast through high school with a B average--copying homework and exams and reproducing work of students from past semesters--learning virtually nothing. It happens.
There is no one, easy way to remedy these problems; the answer lies in a combination of factors. There should be smaller classes for high school students. Mentor programs, based on positive modeling, such as internships and apprenticeships, should be increased. There should be very strict punishments and zero tolerance for cheating. Parents need to get involved. They need to look at their child's homework, review their tests and not just be satisfied with a report card. State colleges need higher requirements. Qualifying scores on the SAT or ACT should be mandatory. Entrance exams, like the ones failed by the college freshmen, should be given in high school before these students gain acceptance to Cal State universities.
When half of the Cal State freshmen fail basic math and English tests, there is no one place to put the blame, and blame is the wrong approach. With factors like low admission standards, lack of parental participation and irresponsible behavior of students, the problem is too complex to go finger-pointing at an individual source. The change begins within the student, at home and at school, in collaboration with a challenging, accountable and supportive school environment.