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Why Can’t Joe College Read? : Increasing numbers of Cal State enrollees need remedial work in basic English and math

An embarrassingly high percentage of freshmen in the California State University system require remedial help in English and mathematics. This unhappy finding, described in a Times report on Friday, should not be interpreted as a blanket indictment of the state’s public schools, which produce some of the nation’s best students, but it should send a message to the K-12 system: Too many students are graduating without basic skills.

To attend Cal State, students must graduate in the top one-third of their class. They are admitted on the basis of grades and successful completion of college prep courses. Students who meet those criteria should have no problem with basic reading and arithmetic; sadly, thousands do. Their failure on basic math and English placement tests is discouraging to all concerned Californians.

Remedial education costs the Cal State system about $10 million. Although that is less than 1% of the system’s $1.4-billion budget, those funds could be better spent, especially given the financial pressure that CSU is under now.

The state can no longer afford to guarantee every student a relatively inexpensive and high-quality education. Fees have more than doubled in the Cal State and University of California systems since 1989. And there is no indication that state budget problems will let up any time soon.

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Fiscal troubles have forced a decrease in available courses and an increase in the number of students allowed to enroll in a given class. Students often cannot get into the courses they need. Most Cal State students now take at least five years to complete work for degrees that once required four years.

Cal State trustee Ralph Pesqueira recommends eliminating the non-credit remedial classes over the next five years to force the K-12 system to improve. That shock treatment would certainly get the attention of public educators. However, it would hurt young Californians.

A better remedy would direct students to pre-college courses at comunity college campuses if they needed remedial help. Students who improve their basic academic skills obviously increase their chances of success at a four-year college.

Not all the news about education is troubling. Public school students generally are improving in math and reading performance, according to a recent RAND Corp. study. Test scores are rising across the board, especially among black and Latino students, due to an increase in the percentage of college-educated parents, higher family incomes, an increase in the mother’s age at birth and a decrease in family size. Such encouraging trends are worth remembering when pondering the future of our public schools.

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