SUMMARY OF THE ISSUE
It is assumed that students who graduate from high-school possess
basic skills and knowledge in core subjects such as English and
math. This assumption may be wrong, based on the performance of
entering college freshmen on basic skills tests administered by
The California State University system accepts the top one-third
of the state’s high-school graduates, but nearly six out of
10 entering freshmen in 2002 needed remedial instruction in either
English or math.
The public schools must do a better job of imparting basic knowledge
and skills through the use of standards-based instruction.
The tragedy of failing and under-performing students in California
public schools is not limited to children from low-income, minority,
and immigrant backgrounds. Continuing high remedial instruction
rates at California universities indicate that even supposedly “good”
students are graduating from high-school with seriously deficient
English and math skills.
The California State University (CSU) system admits students from
the top one-third of the state’s highschool graduating class.
To determine their level of proficiency, entering CSU freshmen must
take placement tests in English and math. Those who fail must enroll
in remedial courses. In 2002, 37 percent of first-time freshmen
required remedial math and 49 percent needed remedial English. Combined,
a shocking 59 percent of CSU freshmen had to take remedial courses
in English and/or math.
Even this high figure probably understates the educational deficiencies
of the new students since the difficulty level of the CSU’s
math test was lowered nearly two years ago in order to gear the
test to non-science and non-engineering majors. Indeed, while 63
percent of freshmen passed the math exam in 2002, an increase of
nine percent over 2001, CSU officials acknowledge that at least
four percent of that increase was due to the easier test.129
The story is even worse when one examines various subcategories.
Systemwide, among freshmen Mexican Americans, 67.1 percent needed
remediation in English, while 68.6 percent of freshmen African Americans
needed remedial help in that subject. In math, 54.4 percent of Mexican
Americans and 65 percent of African Americans needed remedial instruction.
Remediation, however, is not a black-brown phenomenon.
FIGURE 11: PERCENTAGE OF CALIFORNIA
FIRST-TIME CSU FRESHMEN REQUIRING REMEDIAL COURSES IN ENGLISH AND/OR
More than 30 percent of white freshmen and 64.6 percent of freshmen
Asian Americans needed remediation in English, and more than a quarter
of both groups, 26.9 percent for whites and 28.9 percent for Asian
Americans, needed remedial help in math.
The remedial rates at particular CSU campuses were shocking. At
CSU Dominguez Hills in Southern California, 75.4 percent of entering
freshmen needed remedial instruction in math and 78.9 percent needed
remedial instruction in English. At CSU Los Angeles, 64.3 percent
of entering freshmen needed remediation in math and 77.9 percent
needed English remediation. Also, among Mexican Americans, who constitute
the largest ethnic group in the CSU Los Angeles 2002 entering class,
85.4 percent needed English remedial instruction. At CSU Northridge,
63 percent of entering freshmen needed English remediation, including
41.6 percent of white freshmen.
It is important to realize that these abysmal numbers have come
about despite increased spending on public education. In 1994-5,
total K–12 spending per pupil was about $5,500. In 1994, 49
percent of entering CSU freshmen needed remedial English. In 2002–03,
total K–12 spending per pupil had risen to around $9,000.
Yet, in 2002, 49 percent of entering CSU freshmen still needed remedial
English. And for those who say that this consistent record of failure
is due to more students coming from non-English-speaking homes,
CSU officials such as executive vice president David Spence say
that this argument can’t be used as an excuse.130
Remedial students can place a heavy burden on the learning process
at universities. A CSU Fresno official has observed: “[Remedial
students] are not at the same competitive level [as other students].
They either dragged the class down, or bright students tried to
pull them up by the bootstraps. They placed a huge strain on the
In 2001, after taking remedial courses 79 percent of the freshmen
needing remediation became proficient in the subject area. This
quick turnaround points to something seriously wrong in the K–12
system. CSU system chancellor Charles Reed says that the remedial
test results show a long-term systematic failure in the public schools.
According to Reed, “A whole generation of kids can’t
read.”132 Steve Texeira, a CSU Los Angeles official, observes
that the poor English placement test scores “say something
about the meltdown going on in the K–12 schools.”133
CSU, however, is not blameless in the K–12 disaster.
CSU schools of education produce a majority of California’s
public school teachers. PRI’s 2001 report Facing the Classroom
Challenge: Teacher Quality and Teacher Training in California’s
Schools of Education analyzed the guiding principles, course
descriptions, and required reading at a sample of CSU schools of
education. The PRI report found that these CSU teacher-training
programs largely ignored empirically proven teaching methods that
emphasize traditional teacher-centered-and-directed presentation
of lesson content, followed by student practice, testing, and teacher
correction and feedback.
These traditional methods are, for instance, characteristic of
many effective phonics reading programs. In contrast, CSU training
programs pushed so-called “progressive” student-centered
teaching methods that emphasize students discovering or constructing
their own information and knowledge, with teachers acting as mere
facilitators rather than imparting knowledge to children.134
Famed Harvard education researcher Jeanne Chall, after reviewing
years of data, found that “the traditional teacher-centered
approach generally produced higher academic achievement than the
progressive student-centered approach.”135
So, to the extent that graduates of CSU teacher training programs
employ less effective methods in the classroom, CSU bears partial
responsibility for poor student performance. To be fair, however,
CSU is also trying to improve the remedial rates. First, CSU has
created outreach programs aimed at high schools to improve student
readiness for college-level work. Also, CSU has implemented a get-tough
policy to kick out freshmen who take remedial courses and fail to
pass an end-of-course subject competence exam. Students who fail
the exam can forestall disenrollment if they can show some extenuating
However, CSU has started to disenroll increasingly large numbers
of remedial freshmen. At the end of the 2001–02 academic year,
CSU had dismissed 8.2 percent of the nearly 37,000 freshmen admitted
during that fall. This percentage was up from the 6.7 percent of
the year before and the 5.1 percent in 1998–99.136 The CSU
hard line sends the clear message to students and the K–12
system that English and math proficiency must be top priorities.
CSU has a goal of reducing the remedial rate to 10 percent by 2007.
Given the current sky-high remediation rates, it is difficult to
see how this goal can be met. The new remedial instruction numbers
are another indication that for all the talk of reform and accountability,
the public school system is failing to educate adequately the bulk
of its students, even the supposedly better ones.