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Proposal to Toughen Cal State Admission Standards Softened

TIMES EDUCATION WRITER

In a major retreat, the architects of a proposal to tighten admission standards and phase out remedial education at California State University by 2001 have backed off in the face of a public outcry warning that too many students would be denied a college education.

On Tuesday, the Cal State Board of Trustees’ subcommittee on remedial education approved a new plan that seeks much more gradual changes than originally proposed.

In a controversial move in July, the trustees proposed that beginning in 2001, they would boost the quality of education at Cal State’s 22 campuses by denying admission to students who lack college-level English and math skills.

The new proposal still seeks to reduce the number of students who need supplemental academic help. But it does not call for the elimination of remedial courses, and it specifically rejects using “punitive solutions” to effect change.

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“This is a huge victory,” said Marc Levine, president of the California State Student Assn., which represents the system’s 340,000 students. “The message remains: K to 12 isn’t producing students with adequate pre-collegiate skills. . . . But instead of using a scare tactic, [the board] is setting goals and timelines. That’s the right way to go.”

The full board will consider the new proposal in January, and some trustees believe that it will be approved.

“I expect it to pass,” said Trustee Ralph Pesqueira, the chairman of the remedial education subcommittee, who said the new proposal came largely in response to public input at a series of hearings throughout the state.

“We have clearly listened to the public out there and have tried to include their concerns,” he said, although he emphasized that the board remains determined to strengthen the quality of Cal State students. “We softened the language and took away the fear.”

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According to recent data, nearly 60% of entering Cal State freshmen need some kind of remedial help--meaning that they lack the skills to successfully complete college-level course work. This is particularly alarming given that Cal State admits only those students whose grades and standardized test scores place them in the top third of the state’s high school graduates.

Those statistics have fueled concerns among trustees and faculty who worry that the value of a Cal State education is being eroded. As the board began to examine the issue earlier this year, some Cal State faculty members urged trustees to send students who needed remedial help to community colleges to sharpen basic skills.

“Some of our own professors wanted us to shut the gates tomorrow,” Pesqueira said.

But on Tuesday, five of the 21 trustees rejected that approach. The remedial education subcommittee members said that a series of spirited public hearings held from San Diego to Sacramento in recent months had helped them come up with a better result: “A document of hope,” the revised proposal called itself, “not despair.”

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Passing around a typewritten summary of the key points raised by parents, teachers and students in five California cities, trustees said that such input had persuaded them that their initial proposal had provided too little time to effect real change without severely limiting access to Cal State.

“This is not the same document,” Faculty Trustee Bernard Goldstein, who teaches at San Francisco State, said of the new proposal. “It’s been a roller coaster emotionally. But I think it’s a hell of an improvement from where we were.”

The new plan sets forth a far more gradual timetable for improvement. It calls for Cal State to develop and publicize clearer standards for performance before 2001, as well as improved ways of measuring students’ skills. The proposal says that with those elements in place, it expects a 10-percentage-point decline in the number of regularly admitted new freshmen needing remediation by the fall of 2001.

So-called “special admits,” who are granted admission to Cal State because of a special talent or other exception, will not be affected, nor will older, returning students or those for whom English is a second language.

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By the fall of 2004, the proposal continues, the number of regularly admitted new freshmen who need remedial help should be reduced to half of present levels. And by the fall of 2007, the proposal sets a more ambitious goal: Only 10% of regularly admitted new freshmen will need supplemental academic help.

Trustee William D. Campbell, who sat in on the subcommittee meeting but is not a member, said he believes that Cal State would never eliminate remedial courses. But he said he understood why the original proposal had alarmed many members of the public.

“People have a legitimate fear. There’s an environment out there of [Proposition] 187, of closing hospitals and of closing education,” he said, adding that he hoped that Tuesday’s action would help show parents and students that Cal State is not seeking to slam its doors on the underprivileged.

“I think we will always be involved in remediation and we should be,” he said. “The problem was that the level of extra academic support increased to where the majority of our students coming in needed it.”

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The proposal and an accompanying subcommittee report also approved Tuesday emphasize the importance of cooperation among Cal State, the community colleges and the K-12 system.

Trustee Marian Bagdasarian noted that because Cal State trains the majority of the state’s public school teachers, it shares responsibility for the problems in elementary and secondary education. She said that any move to reduce the need for remedial education will be unsuccessful unless Cal State works to improve its teacher training programs.

There also was talk of using Cal State students as interns in public middle and high schools--a proposal that state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin has endorsed in the past. And several trustees called for prospective Cal State students to be tested earlier--preferably while they are juniors in high school--so they have time to acquire basic skills before they get to college.

“Many people made the comment, ‘We do not know what CSU expects,’ ” Pesqueira said, referring to comments he heard during the public hearings. “We need students to take [placement] tests prior to matriculation, instead of five or six semesters into their college education.”

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