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Preparing for Success in College
California State University is working closely with high schools to improve English and math skills

By Kay Mills
Chula Vista, California

Ann Ransburg and Kim Armbrust, teachers in the Sweetwater Union High School District south of San Diego, are on the front line of change as their schools and others in California try to prepare students for success in college. Ransburg teaches rhetoric and writing, and Armbrust teaches math. Both have helped to develop new courses because state educators felt that too many California students were not learning how to read expository texts, or needed another math class, even though they might not major in math or in science.

For many years, students had demonstrated these weaknesses with failure rates on the California State University system's placement tests, taken by all first-time freshmen, that alarmed the Cal State Board of Trustees. In 1996, the trustees established a goal that all freshmen would be ready for college English and math by 2007. But it became clear as the years went by that too many students were still not doing well on the tests. A year ago, only 52 percent of entering freshmen passed the system's English placement test. Sixty-three percent passed the math placement test. The rest needed remediation.

 
Marshall Cates, a Cal State Los Angeles mathematics professor, worked on the math test being taken by high school students bound for Cal State.
(Photo by Axel Koester for CrossTalk)
 
Faced with thousands of freshmen needing remedial work, Cal State has launched an effort to try to identify earlier those students who should receive help, and then to assist the schools in providing it. Unless Cal State is able to offer a warning and help school districts prepare the courses students might need in order to do college work, "it's not fair to the students," said David Spence, Cal State executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer. "They've been getting B's; then they're admitted, and we're telling them they're not ready."

In an era of severe budget pressures, money is a problem. It's hard to put a dollar figure on the cost of remedial courses that these students take, Spence said, but it could be as much as $30 to $35 million a year, in a system with more than 400,000 students.

The new courses that are being developed sometimes aren't an easy sell to either teachers or students-teachers, because they require a new mindset and new preparation; students, because either they are not courses their parents took, or they are not yet perceived as college preparatory. But "this is the type of reading students are going to do in college and for life," said Ransburg, who teaches at Bonita Vista High School, in Chula Vista. "In the past, we have been preparing kids to be mini-literature majors, reading Shakespeare and the Romantic poets," adding that she has nothing against them. "But in reality many don't go on to be English majors. They need to read in science, to read in history. They are not succeeding in college, because they cannot read critically."

"Our problem is reading-it's not writing," Spence told the Board of Trustees earlier this year. "It's a tougher nut to crack than math or writing."

 
Kim Armbrust teaches a newly-developed "finite math" course, for prospective California State University students, at Chula Vista High School in Southern California.
(Photo by Axel Koester for CrossTalk)
 
There are vast discrepancies among the 23 Cal State campuses. At those with the largest freshman classes, the percentage of students who demonstrated math proficiency ranged from 80 percent at San Diego State University to 45.4 percent at Cal State Northridge. On the English test, 70 percent of San Diego State freshmen demonstrated proficiency, while only 37 percent at Northridge did so. Among schools with smaller first-year classes, scores ranged as low as 25.1 percent passing the math test, and 18.2 percent the English test (at Cal State Dominguez Hills), and 38.4 percent passing the math test, 23.5 percent the English test (at Cal State Los Angeles).

Explanations for the disparities vary: San Diego State receives far more applications than it can accept, so higher grade point averages are required for admission; Cal State campuses at Dominguez Hills, Los Angeles and Northridge have many students for whom English is not their first language or who attended high schools that might not have prepared them for college-level work.

"By connecting the Cal State's college placement standards in English and math to existing school tests, we believe we can better determine if students are ready for college," said Cal State Chancellor Charles B. Reed, when the three-year collaboration between his system, the California Department of Education, and the State Board of Education was officially unveiled last November. "The better prepared students are when they come to Cal State, the better the chances are that they will succeed and graduate."

California is not alone in this work, although Janis Somerville of the Education Trust, an expert in school-college relationships, thinks the state's effort is very special because Cal State faculty members are working closely with K-12 schools. "It wouldn't have been possible without collaboration," she said.

Some other states, among them Colorado and Oklahoma, are using the national ACT as a statewide measurement for high school juniors so that students, parents and local school districts can see who needs additional help.

But California educators felt that existing tests, such as the ACT or the SAT, were not tied closely enough to the state's standards, which mandate what students should know in English and math. They needed their own measuring sticks, but couldn't develop an entirely new test because many Californians-especially some state legislators-thought students already were being asked to take too many standardized tests.

So, starting in 2001, Cal State faculty began to develop math and English items to add to existing tests that all public high school students take in the junior year. Designed to help high schools assess their own programs, these tests did not contain enough high-level math problems to help predict college success, said Marshall Cates, a Cal State Los Angeles professor who serves on the math test review panel. Fifteen questions, designed to measure deeper understanding of mathematics, were added to the end of the California Standards Test (CST). "If you can do these multi-step problems," Cates said of the students taking the exam, "we think they're in your workbox rather than just on the shelf-you really know how to use things."

The augmented CST English test also contains 15 additional questions and an essay. As with the extra math problems, this portion of the test is voluntary, although last spring about half of the state's high school juniors took it. Both the math and English tests measure proficiency in areas covered by the state standards. In English, for example, a student must be able to read a passage and understand what is being said in a more than superficial way, said Robert Noreen, a Cal State Northridge English professor who helped develop the questions.

If students pass the English test, they will be exempt from the Cal State placement exam that all entering freshmen must take. If they don't pass the English test, they will be advised to take some course during their senior high school year-like the one Ann Ransburg teaches-that will improve their critical reading skills.

On the math test, there are three possible results: Students who pass will be exempt from the Cal State math placement exam; those with marginal scores may receive a conditional exemption (if they take an approved senior-year course, and pass, then they are also exempt from the placement test); students who do poorly on the CST in their junior year are advised to take another math class. Then they take the math placement test the summer before they start college to determine whether they will need a remedial course once on campus.

School and Cal State officials are hoping that students will come to see the value of the augmented CST and will take it more seriously. "Now there's something in it for the students," Cates said. "It may take a couple of [years] for the high school culture to convince them of that."

About 100 high schools across the state piloted the new tests in spring 2003, including those in the Sweetwater district. Last spring the augmented CST was offered to all juniors. Of the state's 400,000 juniors, some 186,000 took the English exam, and 118,200 took the math exam, surprising Cal State officials. "We thought we would be fortunate to have 100,000 take the English exam," said David Spence. "This exceeded everybody's expectation."

Last year, high school staff members did not receive the pilot program results until April, too late for counselors to advise students about anything except summer school opportunities. Cal State pledged to provide the results in a more timely fashion this year. However, because of the large number of students taking the tests, schools did not receive results until the end of September.

"We are absolutely committed to having the results for the schools no later than August 15 next year," Spence said. "We didn't want to cut off the number taking the test this year, and so it took longer than expected. The good news remains that students still have time to engage in math and English activities to get up to speed."

Among 11th graders who completed the English test, 30,000 to 35,000-or 20 to 25 percent-were deemed ready for college-level English and will be exempt from taking Cal State's English placement test if they are admitted for fall 2005. Between 60,000 and 65,000-or 50 to 55 percent-of those who took the math test were assessed as ready for college-level work. Ten to 12 percent of those students will be exempt from taking the Cal State placement test. The others did well enough to earn exemption from the Cal State test if they successfully complete an approved math course or activity during their senior year.

Spence remains confident that Cal State and the local school districts can meet a 90 percent proficiency goal. "I know we can do it," he said. "The real change will be next year, because we will have had a year to tell them they aren't prepared and they have to do something about that."

The essay portion of the English exam takes the most time to grade. The essays are based on a "prompt," that is, a short paragraph setting out an author's position on topics such as, perhaps, whether manufacturers of legal but harmful products should have to pay financial settlements like those to which cigarette makers agreed, or whether working mothers should always be immediately accessible for their children. The students have 45 minutes to plan and write an essay in which they explain the author's argument and whether or not they agree, using supporting information from the paragraph or from their own experience. The essays are scored on a six-point scale, six being strongest.

There are many good writers in 11th grade, said Robert Noreen, but reading is the problem. They know the mechanics but "they don't have sufficient training in reading prose, whereas when they get to freshman English that's usually what they are reading." Instead of reading, this generation of students watches television. "They are very visual, oral," he added. "Watching TV, talking non-stop to friends, even e-mailing, fosters a very superficial kind of response."

Students who do not do well on the English portion of the CST now can take a rhetoric and writing course like the one Ann Ransburg teaches in Chula Vista. "The biggest problem students have coming in to the class is understanding the author's argument," Ransburg said. "They'll read something about cloning, for example, and instead of looking at the author's evidence, they want to give their own opinion. To understand the author's evidence takes critical reading," she added. Her students are used to reading fiction and talking about how they feel about it. "This is more focused reading."

Ransburg asks her students to preview the reading, whether it is a newspaper editorial or a political commentary. "Look at the title. What are they saying? Who wrote it? Where did it appear? What's the audience? Is it by a group like the American Civil Liberties Union or the Southern Poverty Law Center, with a point of view? Read the first and last paragraphs-try to make a prediction about what the person's point of view will be."

Then she asks the students to chart the reading, paragraph by paragraph, and answer questions about the evidence presented. They need to learn new vocabulary as well. English is not the first language for many of Ransburg's students, so they may not be familiar with expressions like "Good Samaritan" or "Madison Avenue." In the Sweetwater district, which stretches from the southern end of San Diego to San Ysidro on California's border with Mexico, about 66 percent of the students are Hispanic. Nine percent of the district's 38,000 students are Filipino. One fourth of the Sweetwater students speak limited English.

"This is not a remedial course in any way," said Marsha Zandi, the district's English curriculum specialist. "This is senior-year work that is valid and needs to be done. It is not a substitute for college, but to prepare them for college courses." Ninety percent of reading after high school is expository, Zandi added. "We want them to be more critical so they question what's handed to them."

Ransburg, who serves on a committee helping Zandi develop the course locally, thinks the effort is worthwhile. "But I'll tell you, I'm certainly out there by myself," she said. "Many of my colleagues don't want to do it. And it's so new the kids grumble." But several of her students who had failed the English placement test before now have passed it. "I don't think they would have without this class," she said.

Cal State plans to make modules of a critical reading and writing course like Ransburg's available this year so that teachers can plug them into existing English courses, David Spence said. So far, however, the University of California, which must approve courses acceptable for admission to both UC and Cal State campuses, has not approved the English course so that it would be required for high school seniors.

UC wanted more literature in the course, Spence explained, but he expressed confidence that the course will be approved soon. In the meantime, the Sweetwater district's course has been approved as meeting the 12th grade English requirement.

Teachers know that the material they are presenting to students in both English and math must be offered in a different context from the one they have already studied, said Karen Cliffe, the Sweetwater district's math curriculum specialist and an Advanced Placement calculus teacher. "Even though some of these students need remediation, you will lose them if they say, 'I did that already.'"

At Chula Vista High School, Kim Armbrust teaches what is called finite math. She explained that the typical finite math course involves study of numerical sequences and series. In addition to that work, the course that she and others helped devise for the Sweetwater district includes a unit on logic, one on probability and statistics, and college study skills. As a result, said Cliffe, "they are learning some new math at the same time we are doing the remediation we need."

Many students typically would not take math in the senior year and have forgotten much of what they learned by the time they take the placement test, said Cal State Los Angeles's Marshall Cates. "If we can get them to do some math in their senior year, we believe they will retain the information."

In addition to testing and preparing courses to help students do better on the placement exams, Cal State also is training teachers to teach these new courses. The system is sponsoring institutes and developing materials through which teachers can improve their own skills. This year, 555 high school teachers have been participating in 80-hour professional development reading institutes at 13 Cal State campuses, in a program paid for by the university. Basically, they are learning "what is university-level work and what process does it take to bring students to that level," said Nancy Brynelson, co-director of the Cal State Center for the Advancement of Reading.

 
High school teacher Ann Ransburg believes her new critical reading and writing course will help students pass the Cal State English placement test.
(Photo by Axel Koester for CrossTalk)
 
The institutes involve teachers of history, science and other subjects, as well as English, because "literacy is not something you do only in English," she added. "We find students need a lot of support in reading carefully, synthesizing what they have read, and writing (about it)."

Next year Cal State officials are hoping another 550 teachers will participate in similar reading programs. They will also be starting three-day programs for people who teach English to high school seniors, and who are willing to take the lessons that are being developed on reading and integrate them into their current courses. "Not every teacher is willing to commit to 80 hours, and we need to get a lot of them involved to get their feedback," Brynelson said.

Cal State allocated $3.2 million to administer the augmented test to all 944 of the state's public comprehensive high schools last spring, and has budgeted the same amount for next year. That money covers printing, distributing, collecting and grading the tests, as well as reporting scores to students and their school districts.

In addition, $3.9 million has been set aside for the training institutes for English teachers, development of the writing and finite math courses, and online diagnostic writing and math services for students, Spence said. Through the writing service, for example, students can submit an essay electronically and receive comments from Cal State faculty about their strengths and weaknesses as writers. In addition, each Cal State campus has received money to hire a coordinator to work with local high schools to develop appropriate programs for seniors who did not do well on the math or English tests.

As California tries to dig out of a fiscal crisis, the Cal State system's 2004-05 budget was cut by $157 million, but the early assessment program remains a priority, Spence said. "We've protected this because it's so important."

To try to reach 90 percent student proficiency on the placement tests by 2007, Cal State's trustees have set an interim 2004 goal of 74 percent math proficiency and 78 percent English proficiency-clearly, as yet, unmet. At a January board meeting, Cal State trustee Roberta Achtenberg asked Spence, "Is it really true that we'll make our goal?"

"Yes," said Spence.

"Are you willing to bet your job on it?" he was asked by Chancellor Reed.

"I am willing to bet my job on it," Spence replied.


Kay Mills, a former Los Angeles Times editorial writer, is the author of "Changing Channels: The Civil Rights Case that Transformed Television" (University Press of Mississippi, 2004).

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