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Cal State Sees Dip in Need for Remedial Help

Literacy: Fewer freshmen need catch-up courses in English and math for the first time in years.


SAN JOSE — For the first time since Cal State University began keeping records on unprepared students, the number of freshmen arriving on campus in need of remedial classes in English and math has declined, university officials announced Tuesday.

Officials attributed this year's turnaround, in part, to their efforts to help high school juniors and seniors brush up on any deficient skills before they enroll in college.

But Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the 22-campus system, told Cal State's Board of Trustees that it's too soon to become complacent, given the dismaying lack of preparation of freshmen who show up at most campuses.

"For the first time, we've turned it around," Reed said, pointing to the modest drop in remedial students. "That's not good enough. Next year, we've got to [do] better."

Of the 31,187 freshmen who entered Cal State last fall, 48% needed remedial math after failing the university placement test. That was a substantial drop from the 54% enrolled in remedial math the year before.

The gain was less significant for English. About 46% of freshmen needed remedial work in reading and writing, a decline of only 1 percentage point from the previous year.

The proportion of unprepared students remained much higher at the large, urban campuses that tend to draw students from low-performing high schools.

At Cal State L.A. and Cal State Dominguez Hills, three-fourths or more of entering freshmen were deficient in math and English. At Cal State Northridge, Cal Poly Pomona, Cal State Long Beach and Cal State Fullerton, more than half of the freshmen did not have the basic English reading and writing skills they should have mastered in high school.

Cal State Fullerton posted a significant drop in the proportion of freshmen enrolled in remedial math courses, down to 46% last year from 54% in 1998. The percentage of freshmen in remedial English classes was unchanged at 51%.

"We're encouraged that the math numbers did improve, and we're hopeful the other numbers will too," said Ephraim Smith, Cal State Fullerton's vice president for academic affairs.

Smith said the university continues to work with high schools to create programs ensuring that freshmen will not need catch-up work.

"We feel that we can improve the pass rate and the success rate of students in college," Smith said. "Our bottom line is students should be remediated and should go on and be successful in their studies."

Cal State Fullerton's goal is 10% remedial enrollment by 2008, he said.

A Steady Climb Over Last Decade

The percentage of freshmen in need of remedial work had been climbing steadily over the past decade before leveling off last year. That was mostly because university officials were steadily doing a better job of corralling Cal State-bound students and giving them assessment tests before they enroll in class.

Since last year the university has managed to either test all incoming freshmen or make sure they have satisfied remedial requirements by taking the right courses at a community college or getting a sufficiently high score on the SAT.

Cal State isn't the only public university struggling with remedial education, which critics say is the equivalent of double-billing taxpayers for the failures of public high schools to properly prepare students.

Nationwide, 29% of all college freshmen have to enroll in at least one remedial class in reading, writing or arithmetic.

Yet unlike the City University of New York, which made a controversial decision to bar remedial students until they are ready, Cal State officials are trying to work with 223 of the state's worst high schools to gradually reduce remedial education to no more than 10% of freshmen by 2007.

So thousands of Cal State University students now volunteer to go into public high schools and junior high schools as tutors.

Cal State faculty are now working with teachers, counselors and administrators to set up programs to make sure more college-bound students will be ready for college-level work.

Using $9 million provided by Gov. Gray Davis and the Legislature, Cal State officials are helping high school teachers ensure that their classes cover the English and math skills their students need to know so they can pass the university's placement tests.

Executive Vice Chancellor David Spence noted that the university is only working in 143 of the 223 high schools targeted because those are the ones that send Cal State the most remedial students.

"We need more money," he said, making an appeal to expand the program.

In addition, a growing number of high schools are giving Cal State's placement tests to high school juniors or seniors. Those who pass are then exempted from any remedial classes at Cal State. Those who fail must enroll in special programs in high school to bring their writing or algebra skills up to par.

The approach shows promise, educators said, because students learn early on where they are lacking.

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