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2003 California Education Report Card Remedial Instruction

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 universities.

ASSESSMENT

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.

RECOMMENDATION

The public schools must do a better job of imparting basic knowledge and skills through the use of standards-based instruction.

INTRODUCTION

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.

Percentage of CSU Freshman Requiring Remedial Classes

FIGURE 11: PERCENTAGE OF CALIFORNIA FIRST-TIME CSU FRESHMEN REQUIRING REMEDIAL COURSES IN ENGLISH AND/OR MATH (2002)

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 faculty.”131

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 circumstance.

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.

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