A recently released CSU study sheds light on the significant number of incoming freshmen who enter CSUs unprepared for the rigors of university-level math and English.
System-wide, 37.5 percent of regularly admitted first-time freshmen in Fall 2006 needed remediation in mathematics compared with 36.2 percent the year before. For English, 45.3 percent needed remediation compared to 45.2 percent last year, according to the study.
Remedial, or refresher, courses are noncredit classes designed to bring students up to par with the minimum transfer requirements.
CSUN’s numbers paint a much darker picture than the CSU average. Out of 3,568 regularly admitted freshmen in Fall 2006, 54.7 percent needed remediation in math and 59.9 percent needed remediation in English. Last fall, 51.3 percent needed remediation in math and 60.7 percent in English.
Myriad factors, officials say, are partly to blame for the high rate of freshmen falling short in math and English.
“There would be some differences in what students are being taught in high schools and how they are being tested at CSUs,” said Cynthia Rawitch, associate vice president of undergraduate studies at CSUN. “But the issue goes far beyond that. We cannot blame and say (high school) teachers are failing ? It depends on when the students are taking these classes. There is a disconnect between what they learn in high school and what they are tested on.”
Michael Neubauer, coordinator of CSUN’s Developmental Mathematics Program, said it is not easy to single out a single reason for freshmen not being proficient in math and english. Nor did he say he placed blame on educators as a means of pinpointing student inefficiencies.
“It is very hard to pin down one specific reason,” Neubauer said. “Somewhere along the line, something wasn’t working for the students in their math from elementary to K-12. It is not quite clear. Certainly I would not want there to be an impression that college professors are pointing fingers at high school teachers and they are in turn pointing to middle school teachers. It is not healthy.”
Neubauer said he had concerns about Algebra I being taught early in the middle school curriculum, and for many students, the courses are often taught prematurely. “You have to talk differently to a 14-year-old than a 16-year-old, ” he said.
In what administrators say is an attempt to bridge the gap between high school and CSU curriculums, a collaborative effort is being made by the State Board of Education, the California Department of Education and the California State University system. The Early Assessment Program is supposed to monitor the math and English skills of high school juniors. If found, inefficiencies may then be addressed prior to graduation in the student’s senior year.
“EAP is certainly a good attempt to get at the problem,” Neubauer said. “It is a very forward idea and we should pursue that.”
However, since EAP is voluntary, he said, there are some issues around who is actually taking it. “Teachers don’t have to give it and students don’t have to take it. It is a part of (the) California Standard Test, which is mandatory, but (the) EAP part is voluntary,” Neubauer said.
There are two elements of the EAP, said CSU spokeswoman Clara Potes-Fellow. Teachers’ instruction and the test, she said, are the current means through which it is ensured that high school graduates enter the CSU fully prepared to begin college-level study.
Potes-Fellow attributed poor academic performances by incoming freshmen to the ill-equipped system that is supposed to prepare students for college.
“The high school students are not receiving (the) college-level instruction that the CSU faculty expects to see,” Potes-Fellow said. “That’s why the CSU has been working with high schools in order to create programs to prepare teachers to create curriculum tuned more with what is expected in college. EAP is an attempt to establish connection between content in high school and college.”
Correspondence with high schools is done through counselor conferences, frequent letters and teacher instruction, she said.
Students not demonstrating proficiency in English or mathematics are asked to take remedial classes before they enroll in any college-level courses. Within one year, if freshmen are not able to complete their remediation, they are asked to go back to community college with the promise of readmission to the CSU on achievement of desired proficiency.
“These placement exams are held on a series of Saturdays from early February to early June,” Rawitch said. “The tests are graded and depending on where you come out on the scale, you directly go into freshman English/math or you go into a higher level developmental course or you fall below. Even if you test into lowest math and English, you take (the) first remedial class in fall and (the) second in spring. One more chance is given to the students in summers.”
But if students do not pass their remedial classes, Executive Order No. 665, a CSU chancellor’s office mandate, “stops out” or clears the system of under-achieving students.
One percent of first-time freshmen at CSUN (enrolled fall 2005) who needed remediation did not complete their courses, and were in turn permitted to reenroll in fall 2006, actually enrolled.
Neubauer said students, not administrators, are in the best position to evaluate the impact of being sent back to community college for remediation. While some of them handle it, others think of higher education in a negative way and do not come back.
Terry Piper, vice president of student affairs, concurs with the belief that EO665 more often than not has an overall discouraging impact on struggling freshman.
“I have no doubt that there can be a psychological impact from being stopped out,” Piper said. “There might also be a psychological impact of failing out – which might be the outcome if students are unable perform adequately in their courses. So the issue is how best to assist the students achieve the appropriate level of preparation.”
In a last-ditch effort to make amends, the CSU system tries to reach out to students who have failed out.
“In general if you come to a place and are told at the end of the year you don’t cut it, I am sure it hurts,” Rawitch said. “One of the things we do is that we do track them.”
Students are contacted and informed through letters that are sent out by CSU colleges. This letter is sent one time to the student at the close of spring semester.
“We send a letter to students notifying them that we are placing them on a leave, which gives them three semesters,” said Mary Baxton, associate director of CSUN’s Admissions and Transfer Articulation. “They are welcome to come back when they are finished with their remediation in those three semesters. They are considered continuing students.
“If at the end of three semesters they cannot finish their remediation, we are friendly to allow them to come back by reactivating their information in our database,” Baxton continued. “They do not have to apply again.”
The requirement of taking remedial classes also ends up being costly for students in terms of money as well as time.
“It is expensive for the students, and it delays their graduation,” Potes-Fellow said. “It is not really in the benefit of students. Many students who are disenrolled do not return to CSUs.”