The Irascible ProfessorSM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Read not to contradict and confute; nor to believe and take for granted; nor to find talk and discourse; but to weigh and consider."....  ...Francis Bacon.

Commentary of the Day - February 3, 2002:  36% of California State University Freshmen Can't Read at College Level.

Every year at about this time the Irascible Professor's employer (the California State University system) releases the stats on the number of entering freshmen (perhaps in today's politically correct environment that should be freshpeople) who flunk the entrance exams in English and mathematics.  Two years ago we published an article showing that there may have been a slight downward trend in the number of entering freshmen who needed remediation.  The number failing the math test had dropped from 54% to 48%, and the number failing the English test had dropped to 46%.

However, the most recent statistics released by the Chancellor's Office show that the statewide failure rates on both the math and English tests have held steady at 46% for the past three years.  Students who fail one or both of these exams must pass remedial classes by the end of their freshman year.  If they don't, they are forced to leave the Cal State system.  This year 7% of the freshman class (15% of those needing remediation) failed to pass their remedial class and were disenrolled.

Newspapers from one end of California to the other have published articles about the 46% failure rate and 7% ouster rate, but most have failed to understand the implications of a key finding that was released with this year's results.  CSU vice-chancellor David Spence noted that 78% of those who failed the English test did not pass the part of the test that measures the ability of the student to read for comprehension.  Using math that should not be beyond the ability of the average newspaper reporter, 78% of 46% is 36% in round numbers.

The implication here is that 36% of the freshmen entering the California State University system can't read!  Well, that may be a bit of an exaggeration; but, certainly that percentage of our entering freshmen can't comprehend what they read at the level needed for success in many college courses.  This certainly is true in the sciences and engineering where even the introductory texts introduce new concepts and vocabulary at a rapid rate.  Students who find themselves struggling to read and understand standard literary texts certainly are going to be at a grave disadvantage when they encounter more technical works.

The fact that 36% of our entering freshmen can't read with comprehension is scandalous given that the system requires every entering student to have completed with a grade of C or higher both four years of English and two years of another language in high school.  In addition, the average high school GPA for our entering students is well above 3.0.

The system attempts to deal with the problem in two ways.  It has been working directly with a fairly large number of high schools whose students traditionally have had high failure rates on the entrance exams in an attempt to improve performance before graduation.  And, it has gotten much more serious about remediation requirements.  As we have noted, remedial courses must be passed by the end of the freshman year or the student is disenrolled.

Unfortunately, passing a remedial course in English or in math does not ensure that the student is really qualified for college level work.  To a large extent, the students who end up in remedial math simply avoid courses and majors that require quantitative skills.  Once remedial math is completed a Cal State student is obligated to take only one additional math course to meet the general education requirements.

The situation is much more precarious for students who need remediation in English.  Even if they pass the remedial course, it is highly likely that their reading and writing skills are marginal, and there aren't very many majors that don't require some reading and writing!

As the IP sees it the problem really lies with K-12 education.  For most students language skills are most easily acquired early in life.  By the time one reaches college it is almost too late, though certainly not impossible for a student without good reading skills to become fully literate.  Thus, the onus should be placed much more squarely on the K-12 sector.  Certainly, it is not too much to ask that the top third of high school graduates (the ones who are eligible for the California State University campuses) should be able to read with comprehension.

The one-year remediation requirement has sent something of a message to high school students.  But if the statistics of the last three years are any indication it has not been a strong enough message.  The IP would go a step further.  Passing the English entrance exam should be a prerequisite for admission to a Cal State campus.  If remediation in English is needed is should be done either by the K-12 sector or at the community colleges.  This need not delay a determined student, since remediation can take place during the summer before the start of the freshman year.

On a relative basis the California State University system is the most poorly funded of the three systems of public higher education in the state.  Moving the costs of remediation from the CSU system to the K-12 or community college system would reduce that inequity.  Insisting, that students who need remediation in English receive it before entering the CSU system would help to ensure that they really are ready to benefit from college-level instruction.

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© 2002 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.