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Cal State Ouster Rate Rises Slightly

Education: Nearly 7% of the freshman class fails to master basic English and math. The university began dropping unprepared students three years ago.

January 31, 2002|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The California State University system has kicked out more than 2,200 students--nearly 7% of last year's freshman class--for failing to master basic English and math skills within a year of enrollment.

This and other evidence of the Cal State system's continuing effort to crack down on unprepared students was released Wednesday in an annual report on remedial education to the system's board of trustees.

The proportion of students ousted at the end of the freshman year is just slightly higher than in the two previous years. The university began dropping students it deemed unprepared three years ago.

Students' lack of preparation shows as well in the number of incoming freshmen who this year failed proficiency tests and were required to take remedial math and English composition courses. Forty-six percent of those who enrolled in the fall needed at least one remedial class in math, and the same proportion needed help in basic English composition skills. The figures were similar to the previous year's.

Cal State officials said they were disappointed, noting particularly that they had hoped to see more improvement in math skills, which had been rising in recent years.

The level of English skills among incoming freshmen has remained constant for the last three years, Spence said, with only 54% demonstrating proficiency.

Despite the lack of improvement, university officials said they believed that some of their efforts to boost student proficiency would ultimately pay off, and they urged trustees to continue to support the reform efforts launched by the university in 1996.

"While we have not yet achieved the trustees' goals, it was acknowledged from the beginning that these were ambitious goals," said David Spence, vice chancellor of the university system, who presented the report.

"We need to stay the course. We really believe that within two to three years, we will see more results, better results," he said.

Under the policy adopted by trustees six years ago, the 22-campus system was directed to reduce remedial education to no more than 10% of Cal State freshmen by 2007. Even as it tries to ease out remedial education, the university system has been working to help high school juniors and seniors boost their skills before they reach college.

One part of the policy was to get tough on Cal State students who arrive on campus unprepared to do the required university-level work.

So, as classes ended last spring, the university notified 2,277 students throughout the system that, because they had not passed their remedial classes, they could not re-enroll at the university for their sophomore year. Instead, they were encouraged to go to a community college to learn the skills needed to pass the exams in math and English.

Spence and other Cal State officials said enforcement of the policy varies from campus to campus. But in general, they said, those students who were kicked out had demonstrated little effort to acquire the necessary skills, either failing to register for remedial classes during their freshman year or rarely attending.

At the same time, the university system is trying in a variety of ways to persuade students to learn--and schools to teach--these skills much earlier, well before entering college.

Under a $9-million program, Cal State faculty members work closely with 172 high schools around the state that historically send the university system the greatest number of students needing remedial help. Through this outreach program, now in its second year, the university focuses on students likely to be admitted, to make sure that those who need extra help are identified early and receive remedial courses, if possible while they're still in high school.

University officials said that there are no studies yet to show the effectiveness of the program but that anecdotal evidence from the participating high schools indicates significant improvement in student skills.

"We hope we'll see that [improvement] in the students who are applying for college in the fall of 2002," said Allison Jones, assistant vice chancellor for access and retention.

The level of English skills has remained constant for three years, Spence said. But Cal State now believes that it has identified the problem and that the issue is not the writing skills of the tested students, but their ability to read analytically. "What we found was that students were really falling down on the reading part, with 78% not passing," Spence said.

As part of an existing program for high school teachers, he said, the university has developed an institute for helping them learn to better convey to their students the necessary skills in reading and critical thinking.

Spence also said Cal State has the highest placement standards of any public university in the nation.

Aside from taking the university's own placement tests when they arrive, students can get out of remedial classes by scoring a minimum of 550 on the math part and 550 on the verbal portion of the SAT. Most other public universities set that standard at 500, he said, with some even lower.

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