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California an the West

Cal State Sees Dip in Need for Remedial Help

Literacy: Fewer freshmen require catch-up courses in English and math for the first time in years. But officials say problem is still serious.


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.

A Steady Climb Over Last Decade

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.

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 instructional 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.

Although Cal State officials haven't gone so far as to banish unprepared students, the university has vastly tightened the rules for remedial freshmen.

Under the chancellor's order, freshmen must complete all remedial classes by the end of their first year or they are out.

To show they mean business, university administrators last fall dropped 1,440 students, or 5% of the freshman class, who failed to pass all required remedial classes.

Strong Improvement in Math Ability

The get-tough message seems to have reached this year's freshman class, said Jolene Koester, incoming president of Cal State Northridge. "It's clear that we wanted our students to be able to achieve."

This year's freshman class at Northridge showed considerable improvement in math. About 55% needed to take remedial math, compared to 63% of last year's freshmen.

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