Only time will tell whether California’s remediation policy will continue to turn out success stories or if disadvantaged students who can’t catch up in time will mark the system’s biggest failure.
SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Brandon Kountz is feeling the pressure. Having completed his first year of classes at California State University-Sacramento, the Richmond, Calif., native has to pass a remedial algebra class this summer to remain a student at the northern California campus for the coming academic year.At California State University and at two-year colleges across this palm-lined state, hundreds of students like Kountz — first-time freshmen — are taking last-chance remedial English and math courses to maintain eligibility to attend their respective schools.“It’s added pressure, especially for incoming freshmen. You have to pass or you get dropped from the entire CSU system,” says Kountz, referring to the California State University’s four-year-old policy on remediation.The policy, which requires first-time freshmen to successfully complete remediation courses within a year of their initial enrollment, is designed partly to prevent students from delaying fulfillment of their remedial requirements.For Kountz, who has professed to hate mathematics and who avoided taking it his senior year in high school, the policy enforces a deadline that he cannot ignore.Students who fail to pass their remedial courses after a year are required to leave and complete the courses at another institution, such as one of California’s 107 community colleges. Campus presidents, however, can grant exemptions to students on a case-by-case basis.California State system officials are taking great pains to paint the reform initiative, created by Executive Order 665, as one that blends compassion with tough standards for students failing to meet full math and English proficiency as first-time enrollees in the 22-campus, 360,000-student system.Results so far are inconclusive, but they do indicate progress. Still, it remains to be seen just how successful the measure will be at reducing the need for remediation in the nation’s largest university system. What is clear is that if the tough-love strategy fails, the kids who will lose out are overwhelmingly African American and Latino. Last year, some 74 percent of Black freshmen in the California State system needed remedial math and another 64 percent needed remedial English. Of Latino freshmen, 65 percent needed remedial math and 62 percent needed remedial English. In this Sunshine State that has already nixed affirmative action, the combined impact for higher education’s most poorly prepared and under-served students could be fatal.Wary of ReformAmong educational opportunity advocates, the push for remediation reform in public colleges and universities has stirred plenty of cause for suspicion, heavy criticism and even protest around the country.The highly publicized elimination of remedial education in New York City’s four-year colleges met with widespread outcry because it ended the city’s longstanding commitment to open admissions, thus seeming to deny opportunity to many graduates of the city’s beleaguered public schools.Several years ago, when California officials began looking at ways to reduce the numbers of students needing remediation in the California State University system, a similar outcry by the public and education advocates surfaced.It was an unfortunate coincidence that state officials had taken on remediation reform at California State around the same time that the University of California board of regents banned the use of race in admissions in the University of California system. Later, passage of Proposition 209 would ban all race-based affirmative action in state programs. To the rest of the nation, it looked as if California, by banning affirmative action in state institutions, including both the University of California and the California State systems, had abandoned any commitment to ensuring opportunity for disadvantaged minorities.“The affirmative action ban didn’t help the image of California’s public university systems,” says Dr. James Lyons, president of California Sate University-Dominguez Hills. As in many states, the push for reform has resulted largely from concern that remedial education billed taxpayers a second time for education expenses that should have concluded with public schooling at the K-12 level. It was believed that remediation reform in California would penalize the state’s least prepared students, many of whom are minorities, for having attended poor public schools.Ralph Pesqueira, a California State University board trustee, argues that the system’s remediation reform movement did not originate solely because of financial concerns. He says that the lack of tighter standards resulted in too many students failing to complete their degrees because of having delayed meeting remediation requirements.“What I saw seven and eight years ago was that too many African American and Latino students were being brought into CSU with poor preparation. They were capable of handling university work, but we were seeing them drop out because they weren’t getting the right attention,” says Pesqueira, who was originally appointed to the trustee board by former California Gov. George Deukmejian, a Republican.Higher education experts have noted that despite having an admissions policy that admitted the top 33 percent of students graduating from California high schools, the California State system had a notably high rate of students needing remediation.“Something needed to be done,” says Lance T. Izumi, a senior fellow at the Pacific Research Institute for Public Policy and a member of the California Postsecondary Education Commission. “More than 50 percent of those enrolling in CSU schools were in need of remediation. That pointed to a real problem.”Clear ExpectationsBetween the 1997-98 and the 1998-99 academic year — the first year the policy was implemented — the percentage of freshmen successfully completing remedial courses jumped from 40 percent to 79 percent, according to system officials. And last year, that percentage climbed to 94 percent.“The students are taking remediation much more seriously. I think [the policy is] making a difference,” says Dr. Charles B. Reed, chancellor of the California State system.The long-term goal of the remediation policy is to reduce the percentage of first-time freshmen needing remediation from around 50 percent to less than 10 percent by the year 2007. California State university officials say that getting students to focus on academic standards prior to their freshman year is critical to reducing the need for remediation in the system.“The solution has to begin at the high school level,” says Dominguez Hills’ Lyons.California State officials say they believe that prospective students are getting the message on the need to attain math and English proficiency prior to enrolling as freshmen. Again, early systemwide results are inconclusive, but they show some progress. Between fall 1998 and fall 1999, the percentage of incoming California State freshmen needing remedial math fell from 54 percent to 48 percent. The percentage of freshmen needing remedial English fell from 47 percent to 46 percent between the two years.Reed argues that even with high numbers of students enrolling who need remediation, greater public awareness of the requirements has been beneficial. One of the surprises for university administrators has been how little awareness exists among the public of academic standards. “Many students and parents didn’t have any idea of what to expect,” he says.While K-12 program officials contacted by Black Issues declined comment, the optimism that California State officials have expressed over reducing remediation stems in part from an ambitious outreach program. Targeting high schools that send a large percentage of remedial students to California State schools, the Collaborative Academic Preparation Initiative got under way during the 1999-2000 school year with $9 million in state funding. Reed, who has pledged to help improve the quality of California public schools as chancellor, says the new partnership puts California State faculty members, administrators and even college students directly into the high schools to help implement curriculum changes.He says the initiative’s success could transform the remediation reform effort into one that could serve as a replica for the nation. “We hope that we can be a model,” he says.At the very least, the push to improve student performance in math and English differentiates California from public higher education systems such as New York City, California State officials claim.“In California, we said that we’ve got to be part of the solution,” Reed says.Lyons, who has been an academic administrator in Mississippi, North Carolina and Maryland, says he believes California’s approach to remediation reform is the fairest he’s seen in his experience.“I’m comfortable that people who are watching California will see our efforts bear fruit,” he says. Making Reform WorkThis summer, Elizabeth Hamman, a math instructor at California State University-Long Beach, has had six weeks to teach an intermediate algebra class to 22 students. During the academic year, the class would be conducted over a 15-week term. For many of the students in the course, Hamman’s class is their last chance to complete remedial studies, or they will have to leave the Long Beach campus to take the class again at a community college or equivalent institution.“I think most of them are going to make it,” she says, referring the test scores she’s seen coming from her students.Hamman — who’s been at California State for four years — says the biggest change she’s seen with the implementation of remediation reform is that freshmen, instead of upper classmen, make up the bulk of her classes.Prior to fall 1998, juniors and seniors filled up Hamman’s remedial algebra courses.“I used to see so many students who had waited until the last semester of their senior year coming into my classes and saying that they needed the course to graduate,” she says.Hamman says she believes that procrastination by students often made learning tougher because any math skills they may have possessed had largely dissipated by their junior and senior years.“I think the [policy] seemed very reasonable because it has cut down on student procrastination,” she says.Hamman is among the hundreds of faculty members working to bring remedial students into math and English proficiency. California State officials say campuses are responsible for tracking students and providing them with support services along with the remedial courses.Remedial studies courses are required for one or two semesters, depending on entry-level math and English placement tests.At San Francisco State University, Lisa Salgado, staff coordinator of the English Tutoring Center, registers and tracks the progress of students who must enroll in specific English courses based on placement test scores. The courses are called developmental writing classes instead of remedial studies. They provide an interim step between highschool and college-level writing.She estimates that San Francisco State enrolled between 400 and 450 students in fall 1998 and nearly 500 in fall 1999. Many of the students were non-native speakers of English. Others were Latino and African American.“A lot of students aren’t prepared to handle college-level writing,” Salgado says.Graduate students provide most of the remedial English instruction. The approach to delivering the curriculum has been, “How can we help each of these individual students?” according to Patty Baldwin, a lecturer in the San Francisco State English department.Classes are kept small — about 15 to 18 enrollees — so teaching can be individualized as much as possible. Baldwin says she initially thought that those required to take the classes would feel singled out, since they were admitted to the university.“I wondered how welcoming it would be for them,” she says. “But they’re actually pretty accepting of the fact that they need help.”Anamaria Garcia, an English instructor at CSU-Hayward, believes that curriculum changes in high school English courses, sparked by remediation reform, will go a long way toward reducing the high numbers of students needing remedial work in English.“The problem is that we get students who’ve never had to learn and demonstrate writing skills that show critical thinking and presents arguments,” Garcia says.While Garcia believes that reform is beneficial to students by getting them to focus on basic skills early in their college career, she worries that many still have to shoulder tremendous burdens such as part-time work and taking care of young children.“We’re a commuter school, and I see students continue to have to take on stressful situations,” she says.As for Sacramento’s Kountz, who describes the policy as “a little harsh,” there’s still optimism.He struggled this past year with the death of his mother and having to work 25 hours a week to make ends meet. Though his focus on academics understandably waned during the school year, Kountz says he’s pretty confident about passing this summer because he’s in a class that is the “only enjoyable math experience [he’s] ever had.”“I’m able to participate in class and talk with the teacher on a regular basis without it being a hindrance on me or the teacher,” he says.
—Karen Finney in Sacramento contributed to this report.
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Division Director, Division of Graduate Education
National Science Foundation
Dean of the College of Social Work
The University of Tennessee Knoxville
Dean of the Tickle College of Engineering
The University of Tennessee Knoxville