Original URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?file=/chronicle/archive/2004/01/29/BAG624KEDI1.DTL

CSU remedial plan falling shy of goal
San Francisco Chronicle
January 29, 2004

Many new students still lack proficiency in English, math

Only about half of the freshmen who entered California State University last fall can read and write proficiently, while just 63 percent are proficient in math, disappointed university officials announced Wednesday.

The poor academic performance was revealed in a report presented to the CSU Board of Trustees at their meeting Wednesday in Long Beach.

It was bad news for the trustees of the 23-campus CSU system, which spends $10 million annually on remedial courses and to teach material that should have been covered in elementary and secondary schools.

For nearly a decade, the trustees have considered it a top priority to reduce such costs and enroll more students with better skills. Their hope was that by 2004, 78 percent of freshmen would demonstrate proficiency in English courses, and 74 percent would be proficient in math.

To try to reach that goal, the trustees approved a get-tough policy in 1996. All freshmen who had not already shown they could do college level work would have to do so within their first 15 months of college or be kicked out of school.

More recently, the trustees approved two less punitive approaches. This year, CSU instructors will begin training high school teachers to teach reading skills to teenagers. And in the spring, CSU will offer the "Early Assessment Program," a voluntary exam for 11th-graders who want to determine which skills they need to work on to be ready for college.

Although the performance of this year's freshman class falls far short of the trustees' expectations, the new report suggests that proficiency may be slowly improving.

Last fall, for example, 42 percent of freshmen were proficient in both English and math skills, compared with just 32 percent in 1998.

In addition, 429 fewer students were expelled in 2003 than in 2002 for failing to achieve proficiency within the 15-month period, according to the report. In 2003, CSU booted 11 percent of students (2,573) for failing to improve proficiency, down from 13 percent (3,002 students) a year earlier.

Ralph Pesqueira was the CSU trustee who proposed the get-tough policy in 1996. Although pleased with the students' recent progress, Pesqueira said the problem of unprepared students "is not something that can just be fixed with a policy."

The vexing issue is the result of three well-known conditions in the California public schools: financial, social and academic.

The first two pieces are tightly intertwined. Voter approval of Proposition 13 in 1978 -- which capped property taxes and forced the state to take on the job of paying for public education -- reduced school funding just as student needs dramatically expanded. Those needs include climbing enrollment, rising poverty, parental drug abuse and an increase in the number of immigrant students who spoke little English to 25 percent.

Yet the ability of schools to pay for highly qualified instructors who could both teach well and handle the social challenges of their students had diminished.

Then, during the 1980s and early 1990s, a mismatch developed between what schools were teaching and what universities expected students to know. Elementary schools had latched on to "creative" new approaches to reading instruction that placed little emphasis on spelling and grammar, while allowing children to guess at the meaning of words through context and pictures. When California's reading scores plummeted on national exams in 1994, the state did a turnabout and withheld all funding for instruction of that kind.

By the late 1990s, the state had set rigorous academic goals in most subjects that were intended to prepare students for college. But today's college freshmen were past elementary school by that time, and many now lack a solid foundation in the basics.

Although many educators continue to disagree about the content of the academic standards, their presence in the pipeline -- and new efforts like the Early Assessment Program -- lead CSU officials to hold out hope that by 2007, 90 percent of incoming freshmen will be proficient in both English and math.

"It is still a big jump, but we do think we will see great improvement largely because students will use the senior year (of high school) to try to strengthen their skills," said Allison Jones, CSU's vice chancellor for access and retention, referring to the Early Assessment Program, which will be offered to high school juniors for the first time this spring.

Meanwhile, the new report showed that of the 37,870 freshmen who entered CSU last fall, 63.3 percent were proficient in math, and 51.8 percent were proficient in English. Those rates were about the same in 2002. But in English, proficiency this year was still below the 54 percent level achieved in 1999.

The numbers were slightly worse at San Francisco State than elsewhere in the CSU system. In math, 56.7 percent of freshmen were proficient (down from 57.2 in 2002). In English, it was 49.3 percent (up from 47.7 in 2002).

"It is a reflection of the kids we get coming in -- what their preparation is in high school and what their backgrounds are," said Jo Volkert, San Francisco State's associate vice president for enrollment planning and management. "I really do believe it reflects our population, a lot of immigrants, people whose first language isn't English. It does pose a challenge. It means we have to put effort and resources into remediation."

Forty percent of CSU students come from families where English is not spoken at home. And by law, CSU has to admit all California students who score in the top third of their high school class and have at least a B average.

Jones said the need for remedial classes was a burden not only for the university, but for the students.

"It is delaying their progress to their degree," she said, an expensive problem as the state's budget crisis causes fees to rise and the number of available seats to shrink.

Chronicle staff writer Nanette Asimov contributed to this report.E-mail Tanya Schevitz at tschevitz@sfchronicle.com.

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