Many incoming college students left unprepared

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After 33 percent of students failed the Los Angeles Unified School District high school exit exam for the 2004-05 school year, some CSUN professors said many incoming freshmen are not prepared for their college-level courses.

“I have noticed that some of the developmental students are not as prepared for college as I would expect them to be,” said English professor Linda Overman. She said that often students’ critical-analytical thinking skills are their weakest areas.

English professor Mary Marca said some of the problem has to do with what incoming college students are being tested on.

“One of the problems that we are seeing is that students are not always being prepared in high school for the type of reading and writing they will be expected to do in the university,” Marca said.

One of the problems is that the emphasis in many high school English classes is literature and fiction, Marca said.

CSUN’s English Placement Test asks them to decode a nonfiction text and answer questions about it, she said. The student has been trained to look at character, plot, setting, etc., and then CSUN asks them to look for thesis, support for thesis and development of argument, she said.

“It is not surprising that many fail to adequately fulfill this task,” Marca said.

Michael Neubauer, mathematics professor and former president of the CSUN Faculty Senate, said the high school exit exam itself could contribute to the low scores, and that after a few years, newly graduating students might adjust to it.

“I expect that once the test (has) been in place for a year that passage rates will improve and stabilize,” Neubauer said. “I think that students in high schools take too many standardized tests already, and I am not sure that adding yet another is helpful. Such an overabundance of testing dilutes the importance of each test. Less is more here.”

Because graduating high school students are performing poorly on exams, CSUN developmental class instructors in both math and English said they work hard to make sure incoming freshmen are prepared for the expectations of university-level courses.

“In our English developmental classes, we work closely with our students on their reading and writing,” Marca said. “Their essays go through multiple drafts with feedback from the instructor as well as their peers. They learn to improve their own essays by looking at others’ work. We also send them to the Learning Resource Center, which has an entire lab staffed with tutors to help them with their essays.”

“Not only do we work on reading and writing skills, but part of our task as teachers of first-year students, especially developmental students, is to teach them how to be a university student. That includes offering study guides, making sure they adhere to deadlines and course requirements, (and) making them aware of the resources that are available to them,” Marca said.

The (Mathematics) Department has a pre-semester meeting with the instructors and then regular faculty meetings throughout the semester, Neubauer said. In those meetings, the department addresses issues relating to student success, he said.

“In Developmental Reading (English 097) we focus (on) excavating relevant meanings from what we read by annotating the text no matter a paragraph, a poem or the many pages of an essay,” Overman said. “Engaging with the text, and in fact having a dialogue, a conversation with the writer, speaker or narrator, imprints meaning – on the writer through marginal notations or annotations.”

As a result, the pass rate for these developmental classes is high.

“We have a better than 80 percent pass rate for our developmental courses,” Marca said. “The majority of my students take the class very seriously and struggle to keep up their grades. The one or two who do not pass often must drop out due to reasons other than the course content. I get perhaps one student per semester who will just not do the work needed to pass the class.”

Many students are prepared to tackle higher-level courses with ease after successfully completing their developmental courses.

“Students who stick with developmental English and all its course rigors and demands by jumping through all the hoops associated with (it) are always better prepared than others for English 155,” Overman said. “They know the drill. They have shored up their writing skills, which is very evident in their later-in-the-semester essays.

“The end result is the more writing and reading students do every day, the better, the stronger, (the) more prepared a writer (and reader) they will be,” she added.

Mark Solleza can be reached at city@sundial.csun.edu.