Write of Passage


Dong Trang loves calculus because, well, "it's easy," he says. So are chemistry and biology.

It's English that gives him fits.

And because of that, Trang, who grew up speaking Vietnamese at home in Highland Park, has been on pins and needles as a freshman at the University of California campus here. He must pass the university's writing exam--soon--if he is going to continue as a sophomore in the fall.

"You feel the pressure," Trang said. "If you don't pass it, you know that you are going to get kicked out."

About 200 students at UC Riverside find themselves in that precarious position this spring. Some shuffle around campus, dejected. Others press on in tutorial sessions to prepare for the exam that has them analyze a short passage from a book and then write an essay.

The idea is to see if they know the conventions of the English language--and if they have the basic reading and writing skills needed to do university-level work.

Even at the University of California, the state's elite public college system, each campus has legions of students who can't pass such a test without extra help.

So each campus has a remedial program to help those--like Trang--who have failed to master what they should have in high school. The university calls it "Subject A," for the ability to use English "correctly, clearly and pertinently."

UC officials, for reasons of funding and stature, are careful to avoid the R-word. But students and faculty know what it is.

"We redefine it and say we aren't offering remedial course work, but of course we are," said George Hanson, head of UC San Diego's Subject A program.

The state Legislature has steadfastly refused to fund remedial education classes at the University of California, saying that's the role of the community college.

So UC San Diego and UC Davis turn over such instruction to the faculty from nearby community colleges.

Six other UC campuses have their own instructors handle special classes. They insist that these are university-level English courses, but include special tutorial sessions for students who need extra instruction. Anything that seems remotely remedial, said UC budget chief Larry Hershman, is covered by student fees, not tax dollars from the Legislature.


The debate over such remedial programs is a hot topic across the country. The trustees of the City University of New York last week decided to phase out remedial courses by 2002 and bar admission to students who cannot pass exams in reading, writing and math.

California State University trustees considered and then rejected such an idea a few years back, opting instead for an aggressive effort to help public high schools teach students the basic skills before they get to college.

Yet no such debate has raged at the University of California. Hundreds of freshmen enroll every fall in special classes because they have not yet met the Subject A requirement, either by passing the essay exam given to high school seniors in May, or by scoring well on standardized tests.

"There is no question in my mind that they belong at the university," said George Gadda, a UCLA lecturer and head of the UC system's Subject A examination committee. "They are highly intelligent, but for a variety of reasons they have not reached a level of competence in their writing."

UC Berkeley, the most selective campus, had 491 freshmen last fall who needed extra help. UCLA had 732 of these "Sub-A" students, as they are sometimes called.

But nowhere has the program swelled more rapidly than at UC Riverside, where 1,187 students--a whopping 61% of the freshmen class--were shepherded last September into a special program to improve their reading and writing.

As the academic year unfolded, a majority of these students picked up the skills they needed to write a satisfactory essay in two hours--a timed-writing test given as a mid-term and again as a final exam for the class.

But some had to return in the winter quarter to try again. And students who didn't pass in the winter are now enrolled in a third and final class.

Under rules set down by the Academic Senate, if freshmen don't satisfy the writing requirement in three quarters, they're out.


Last year, about 85 students faced the spring deadline. Two dozen washed out. This year, UC Riverside faculty are alarmed that about 200 have yet to pass as the spring quarter gallops to a close this month.

"Our instructors are doing everything they can to save these students," said John Briggs, director of the UC Riverside program.

Lecturer Helen Deese floated around Olmsted Hall's basement computer lab in her white shoes, offering cheery advice to a dozen freshmen struggling with fundamentals of English composition.

"I want you to start all over and answer the question directly," she told a freshman. "Describe it in your own words."

With a click of a mouse, the freshman erased the first paragraph of an essay. She stared at the blank screen, striking a pose that looked like, well, utter boredom. A few minutes later, she got up and left.

Deese, meanwhile, had drifted across the room. She leaned over Wyman Sung, hands on his shoulders, helping him sort out the difference between three words on his screen: emigrate, immigrate and migrate.

"Migrate is for birds," she said. "Always use the words that you know when you write your essay," she said.

"What country are you from?" she asked. "Taiwan? PRC?"

"China, mainly Hong Kong," he answered, softly.

"You emigrated from Hong Kong," she said. "You immigrated to the United States. Get it?"

Across campus in a small room off the English department's Writing Center, Yvonne Atkinson led four freshmen through a painstakingly slow reading of an essay written by the late Sen. J. William Fulbright.

"You guys, you've got to look up the words you don't know," she scolded, passing out dictionaries to Chuong Ha, Ly Ngo, James Emerson and Vinh Tea.

Atkinson quizzed them on word meanings. Flummoxed, they looked up the definitions of "egotistical," "self-righteous" and "pontificating."

"You guys hate this, don't you?" she said.

Ngo said nothing. Emerson fidgeted, bouncing his knee under the table.

Tea broke the uncomfortable silence. "Yes," he answered.

As the class ended, Atkinson assigned them to write a one-page paper for next week.

"Oh, no, not more writing," Tea complained.

"I can't force you to write this," Atkinson said. "You are adults now. But practice is good."


After class, Atkinson shrugged at the slow progress. "I understand they are discouraged at this point," Atkinson said. "Some of them who didn't pass their midterms, they are really low. It's right down to the wire. They are facing expulsion."

Assessing these students, Briggs said the pattern reflects the growing immigrant population from countries that speak languages radically different from English. "Almost without exception, the students who are having difficulty come from Asian-language background: Thai, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Hmong or a Chinese dialect."

Some are relatively new immigrants and learned English only recently. Others were born in the United States, but raised in homes--and communities--where English was far from the dominant language.

Briggs blames California's public schools for failing to teach these students to write.

"It's considered impolite," he said, for teachers to correct a student's grammar in class. And, he said, many high school teachers are reluctant to assign essays because of the burden of grading them. A typical English teacher has 40 students in each of five classes, amounting to 200 papers. So their students get little practice.

"All of this," he said, "jeopardizes the University of California careers of some students every year."

So Dong Trang knows he is playing catch-up, hunkered down in the basement computer lab with a self-paced tutorial on the proper use of commas.

Immigrating to the United States as a toddler with his parents, Trang is the first in his family to enroll in the university. He wants to be a doctor and, so far, he's been getting all A's and Bs in chemistry, biology and calculus--the subjects his parents have pushed at home.

But English composition is another matter. He hated it in high school. He avoided reading books. He'd skim the Cliff Notes instead, or watch the movie.

As for his parents, he said, "How could they stress English when they didn't know it themselves?"

Despite working harder in composition than in any other class, he failed the essay exam repeatedly, while nearly all his fellow freshmen have passed it and left him behind.

Finally, a couple of weeks ago, he passed his midterm essay exam--showing he can do it, his teachers say. All he needs now is a reasonable showing on the final essay exam.

He has also surprised himself in that he has grown to enjoy his English classes, and is considering a minor in literature.

Trang's yearlong struggle has shaken his parents, who put their children's education over just about everything else. So when he visits home, he finds a new family preoccupation:

"They are pushing my brothers and sisters to write essays and read books on the weekends," Trang said. "They're hating it."

UC Berkeley, the most selective campus, had 491 freshmen this past fall who needed extra help. But at UC Riverside 1,187 students--61% of the freshmen class--were shepherded last September into a special program to improve their reading and writing.


Unprepared for College

To demonstrate proficiency in reading and writing needed for college-level work, freshmen at University of California campuses must take the university's "Subject A" examination, score 3 or better on the Advanced Placement English test or score 660 or higher on the SAT II English writing exam. Students can also satisfy the requirement by passing a UC-approved English composition class at a community college before enrolling at the university.

The percentage of freshmen who failed to meet the requirement rose last fall at all UC campuses:

Who Needs Extra Help


1996 % of 1997 % of No. of freshman No. of freshmen UC campus freshmen class freshmen class Berkeley 499 15.9% 491 16.3% Davis 1,195 34.6 1,307 41.0 Irvine 1,504 49.6 1,411 54.2 UCLA 706 21.1 732 22.7 Riverside 726 55.5 1,187 61.8 San Diego 526 21.1 783 26.1 Santa Barbara 1,267 41.4 1,520 45.1 Santa Cruz 215 13.1 729 40.9 Systemwide 6,674 31.0 8,160 36.9


Source: University of California


'Subject A' Failures

Percentage of freshmen entering University of California campuses who did not pass Subject A composition requirement before enrolling.

1987: 36.9%

1988: 31%

1989: 31.5%

1990: 37.7%

1991: 31.4%

1992: 33.1%

1993: 31.3%

1994: 35%

1995: 39.5%

1996: 35.%

1997: 37.7%


The Subject A Examination

During the exam, high school seniors get two hours to read a brief passage and write an essay. The topics change every year. In 1997, they were asked to read a two-page passage from "Mirror of Man" by Harvard anthropologist Clyde Kluckhohn, about the influence of culture on how people think, feel and behave. In their essays, students were asked to analyze how Kluckhohn explains the differences and similarities among the world's peoples and to offer their opinions about his views, giving examples to back up their points.


Scoring Guide

Sample characteristics of papers at various levels of competence (students must score 4 or better to pass):

6) Commands attention because of insightful development and mature style. Presents a cogent response to the text, elaborating with well-chosen examples and persuasive reasoning.

4) Satisfactory, though sometimes barely so. Presents an adequate reasoning to the text, elaborating that response with sufficient examples and acceptable reasoning.

3) Unsatisfactory. May respond to the text illogically, lack coherent structure or elaboration with examples or reflect an incomplete understanding of the text or the topic. Prose characterized by frequently imprecise word choice, little sentence variety, occasional major errors in grammar and usage, or frequent minor errors.

1) Suggests severe difficulties in reading and writing conventional English.

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