Trying to head off the high number of college freshmen needing remedial classes, Cal State University officials Tuesday said they plan to test high school juniors for basic skills and could require some of them to substitute math class for the traditional senior year activity: goofing off.
If these students still don't get it, the university will encourage thousands of them to spend their summer break before college taking remedial math and English so they don't waste time as freshmen.
These latest reform proposals surfaced as the 22-campus system unveiled statistics showing that 54% of its freshmen were unprepared for college-level math and 47% lacked the skills for college English courses.
Cal State Fullerton had slightly higher figures: 54% of the 2,016 first-year students failed a basic math exam and 51% flunked an English placement test.
A failing rate of "half our freshmen is a large number," lamented Thomas Klammer, Cal State Fullerton associate vice president of academic programs.
The dismaying lack of preparation was even more pronounced at urban campuses, such as Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson, where eight out of 10 freshmen needed remedial English and 87% needed remedial math. At Cal State L.A., 79% needed remedial English and 77% remedial math.
Still, Cal State officials found some hope in the numbers--at least they were not higher than last year's.
The percentage of freshmen needing remedial work has climbed steadily every year for the past decade, mostly because university officials do a better job corralling Cal State-bound students and giving them assessment tests before they enroll in classes.
University officials managed to test 99% of incoming freshmen this past fall, up from about 90% the year before. "So we expected the percentages to go up," said Allison Jones, Cal State's senior director of access and retention.
The flat numbers, he said, suggest that "the rate is actually going down. Maybe all of the attention on the schools from the governor and the Legislature, the new state standards [for kindergarten through 12th grade], is starting to pay off."
Cal State is not alone in struggling with remedial students. Nearly eight out of 10 American colleges and universities, including many of the elite schools, offer remedial classes.
Nonetheless, the Cal State system wants to get out of that business.
One Goal: Improve Teacher Training
A few years ago, Cal State leaders rejected the idea of simply denying admission to those who lacked college-level math and English skills.
Instead, they launched a major effort to improve the public high schools and thus slowly reduce the numbers needing such help to about 10% of incoming students by 2007.
A key component of Cal State's reform drive aims to improve its teacher-training programs, which supply nearly 60% of California's teachers.
It also tries to embarrass high schools into improving student performance by releasing test scores that show how many of each school's graduates failed the placement exams. This year's scores were released Tuesday on Cal State's World Wide Web site:
At Fullerton this year, officials stepped up outreach programs with Orange County school districts in an attempt to lower remediation rates. For example, Cal State Fullerton faculty from the English department met with high school English teachers to discuss what's expected at the college level.
Also, the Fullerton campus hosted workshops at five local high schools for students intending to take the Cal State math and English placement tests. And Cal State Fullerton students routinely tutor high schoolers in math and English.
"We're completely committed to working with K-12 [school districts] to ensure that students are properly prepared for higher ed and that the numbers will eventually go down," Klammer said.
And now the university wants to expand a pilot program of testing high school juniors for math and English proficiency so they can get the remedial help before they get to college.
The plan is to offer such testing at the 200 high schools that send the most students in need of remedial help to Cal State.
"We are doing everything we can to get people to focus on the problem," said Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the Cal State system.
He has fixed on one problem: "Most high school students don't take any math in the senior year. They forget a whole lot between May of their junior year and 17 months later when they enroll at Cal State. That has to change."
To keep math skills from getting rusty, Cal State officials are considering attaching a condition when the entry level math placement exam is taken at the end of the junior year.
If the student passed the exam, the university would excuse him or her from any remedial classes as long as the student took math as a high school senior.
Cal State officials expect that students who failed the test as a junior would take math the next year to bring their skills up to par.