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National CrossTalk Fall 1999
News Editorial Other Voices Interview

3 of 4 Stories

Preparing Unprepared Students
Cal State Northridge offers a special summer program

By William Trombley
Senior Editor

Northridge, California

  Recent high school graduates Sahar Faghani, Mike Lewis and Jay Deogracias enrolled in a summer remedial math program before entering Cal State Northridge this fall.
  Recent high school graduates Sahar Faghani, Mike Lewis and Jay Deogracias enrolled in a summer remedial math program before entering Cal State Northridge this fall.
EIGHTEEN-YEAR-OLD Sahar Faghani sat in a hot, stuffy portable classroom on the California State University, Northridge, campus a few weeks ago, a bit unhappy about having to take a summer remedial math class before entering the university this fall.

Sahar had compiled a good grade point average at nearby Van Nuys High School, qualifying easily for admission to the Cal State system, which selects its first-year students from the top one-third of the state's graduating high school seniors. But she fell just below the cut-off point on the mathematics test required of all entering Cal State freshmen.

"A lot of high school teachers, they don't teach," Faghani grumbled, "and a lot of the students just clown around, they don't pay any attention."

But 18-year-old Jay Deogracias, who graduated from another local high school last spring, did not seem to mind the make-up class.

"I wasn't too surprised when I failed the test because, overall, my math wasn't that good," Deogracias said. "This class gives me a chance to review the material and get ready for college."

Faghani and Deogracias were enrolled in a special Cal State Northridge summer program for graduating high school seniors who failed either the Entry Level Mathematics test (ELM) or the English Placement Test (EPT), now required for admission to the 22-campus Cal State system.

Seeking to reduce the amount of remedial instruction, the Cal State Board of Trustees in 1996 adopted a policy limiting remediation to ten percent of incoming freshmen by the year 2007, but progress has been slow.

Last fall, 54 percent of first-time freshmen required remedial math, 47 percent remedial English -- the same as the year before. Campus rates vary widely, due mostly to demographic and household income differences.

For instance, at Sonoma State University, in the affluent wine-growing country north of San Francisco, where 516 of last fall's 772 entering freshmen were white, 48 percent required remedial help in mathematics, 25 percent in English. At Cal State Los Angeles, where 95 percent of entering freshmen were non-white, many from low-income neighborhoods, 77 percent needed remedial help in math, 79 percent in English.

Cal State Northridge has undergone dramatic demographic shifts in the last 20 years, changing from a predominantly white campus to one that is two-thirds minority. A year ago, 63 percent of first-time freshmen required remediation in math, 59 percent in English. Only 452 of 2,300 first-year students needed no remedial help. "That gives you an idea of the size of the problem," said Margaret Fieweger, associate vice president for undergraduate studies.

Each campus decides how to deal with the remedial issue, and Northridge chose to emphasize summer programs, hoping to prepare as many first-year students as possible for university work by the time fall classes began.

That is what brought Sahar Faghani and Leo Deogracias together in a developmental math class, one of many offered to about 300 incoming Northridge freshmen during the summer.

Since Northridge receives no state funding for a summer term, students ordinarily would have paid $140 per unit, or $700 for the five-unit remedial course. However, an unusual arrangement with nearby San Fernando Valley College, a two-year community college, allowed them to pay at the community college rate of $12 per unit, or $60 for the course.

At Cal State Northridge, where many students come from families that are living at or below the poverty line, the $700 fee would have been prohibitive for many entering freshmen, campus officials said.

"The Valley College collaboration was a real godsend for us," according to Robert Danes, director of undergraduate studies. "We were sitting here scratching our heads, trying to figure out how we could afford this summer program, and then Valley called."

Carlotta Tronto, dean of academic affairs at Valley College, called it a "win-win" for both institutions. "It helped students entering Northridge as freshmen, and it provided summer jobs for some of our instructors," she said.

  Mathematics professor Elena Marchisotto is director of remedial math programs at Cal State Northridge.
  Mathematics professor Elena Marchisotto is director of remedial math programs at Cal State Northridge.
Valley College hired and paid the instructors but the classes were taught a few miles away at Northridge. Some instructors were from Valley College, some from Northridge, some taught at both places.

The program was rigorous. Students spent four hours a day, five days a week, for six weeks, in classes, workshops or tutorials. They took weekly tests and, if they failed a test, needed a "re-entry ticket" from the instructor to rejoin the class.

"There's no credit for 'seat time,'" said Elena Marchisotto, professor of mathematics at Northridge and director of the developmental math program.

The students were divided into two groups -- those who were planning math-related majors and therefore would need calculus, and those who would not.

Students also were grouped by ELM scores. Those who came closest to the 550 passing mark were placed in workshops, while those with lower scores were in developmental classes. Tutoring was mandatory for all summer students.

Classes were small -- 20 to 25 students. Each class or workshop had an instructor and two tutors. Most of the instructors had been teaching remedial (or "developmental") math for several years. Most of the tutors were math graduate students but a few were undergraduate math majors.

"I feel bad for these kids," said Jim Castro, associate director of the developmental math program, who also taught two summer classes. "They do what they've been told to do in high school and then they fail the ELM (the entry-level mathematics test), and we come along and tell them they have to do this remedial class in order to enter the university."

Much of Castro's summer instruction was a review of algebra and geometry. "This is a good class," he said one day, "but, like most freshmen, there are gaps in what they know."

Castro said he was "pretty hopeful" that most would pass the ELM on their second try, and his optimism was warranted. Twenty-six of the 31 students in Castro's two summer classes took the ELM in late summer. All of them passed.

Altogether, 102 of the 128 students who took the ELM test at the end of summer passed it and have completed their remedial work. Another 153 students earned credit for one remedial class but must pass one more before becoming regularly enrolled freshmen.

A few received "stop-out" letters, urging them to brush up their math at a community college before trying to reenter Cal State Northridge.

While the intensive math classes seem to have been successful, the same cannot be said for English. The math program was well coordinated, with many classes and workshops for students of varying levels of ability, but there was only one class for entering freshmen who failed the Cal State English Placement Test, and only a handful of students enrolled.

"We didn't have enough time to do it," Margaret Fieweger said. "We were late in getting letters to the students."

One reason they were late is that writing is taught in four different departments at Northridge (English, Pan-African Studies, Asian American Studies and Chicano/Chicana Studies), and the four were unable to agree on what should be taught in the intensive summer courses or even if they should be offered.

The English faculty was especially dubious about this approach.

"Writing is best taught over a period of time," Robert Noreen, chairman of the English department, said in an interview. "We didn't think it was good pedagogy to try to correct, in six weeks, a problem that will take a long time to correct."

  Twenty-six students who enrolled in Jim Castro's remedial math class at Cal State Northridge last summer later took the university's math placement exam, and all passed.
However, Fieweger and other campus administrators said they were confident that next summer a full program of both math and English classes will be offered.

The Northridge-Valley College collaboration, and other special summer programs, offer a means of coping with the troublesome problem of unprepared students, especially in large public systems like the California State University or the City University of New York.

There are as many reasons given for the large number of unprepared students as there are people to ask.

Some said many high school students don't take the Cal State placement tests seriously, while others blamed "math phobia" among many high school students.

Still others criticized the ELM test as too demanding (students must solve 65 problems in 75 minutes), too abstract and not a good measure of the skills needed for either math-related or non-math-related college work.

But Elena Marchisotto "strongly disagrees" with critics of the test, saying it has "proven to be a useful predictor" of college performance at Cal State Northridge.

"There is still a debate about the test," said Charles Lindahl, associate vice chancellor for academic affairs in the Cal State system. Both the math and English tests are being evaluated by systemwide committees, Lindahl said.

Many students come from broken homes, where higher education might not be a high priority. Most students work at least part-time to be able to afford even the modest Cal State fees.

Last year, Cal State Northridge provided financial aid to 15,124 students, whose average household income was only $22,160.

"It's not that our students are from poverty, they are in poverty," said Philip Handler, interim vice president for academic affairs and provost at Northridge. "It's a wonder they survive at all."

Many blame the public schools, especially those in Los Angeles, for failing to prepare students for college or university work.

"These students have been failed by their school system," said Louanne Kennedy, interim president at Cal State Northridge. "They have done what they were told to do, they have passed their (high school) courses" but they are victims of "low performance in the Los Angeles Unified School District, and that's our primary feeder system."

Kennedy accused the Los Angeles schools of having "magnet schools and throw-away children…because if you're not in a magnet, you're not going to be well-prepared for university."

Of the 30,000 California teachers who hold only emergency credentials, a high percentage are in Los Angeles. Many math classes, in Los Angeles and elsewhere in the state, are taught by instructors whose grasp of the material is frail.

"The whole educational system has let them down," Vice President Handler said. "We have to keep reminding ourselves of that, especially faculty, some of whom tend to be impatient (with unprepared students). We have to take the students where they are and get them to where we want them to be."

This student-centered approach differs sharply from positions taken by some members of the Cal State Board of Trustees when the board began to discuss remedial education four years ago.

Trustee Ralph R. Pesqueria, a San Diego restaurant owner, proposed that students who had not passed both the English and mathematics placement tests should not be permitted to enroll, or to continue, at Cal State. This would have eliminated about 9,000 students systemwide, including about 850 at Cal State Northridge, officials estimate.

A few trustees were sympathetic to Pesqueria's proposal, which came at about the same time the City University of New York was deciding to eliminate remedial instruction from its four-year colleges and the University of California was abolishing affirmative action in admissions.

"It was a big problem," said Trustee William D. Campbell, a Newport Beach attorney and businessman. "A lot of students were trying to find a way to get through without taking any math classes, the faculty didn't want to teach remedial classes and high school standards had fallen so low that you could be in the top third of your class and still not be ready for college work."

  Louanne Kennedy, interim president at Cal State Northridge, is critical of the Los Angeles public schools for failing to prepare large numbers of students for college work.
  Louanne Kennedy, interim president at Cal State Northridge, is critical of the Los Angeles public schools for failing to prepare large numbers of students for college work.
But Campbell and other board members thought the Pesqueria remedy was too harsh. Nor did the proposal sit well with some members of the Legislature, especially those from minority districts. After a statewide series of hearings, Pesqueria himself came to agree that more time would be needed to phase out remedial classes.

In January 1996, the trustees adopted a compromise policy calling for a gradual reduction in the numbers of first-time freshmen needing remediation -- by ten percent in fall 2001; 50 percent by 2004; and 90 percent by 2007.

The policy also called for all freshmen to be tested before they begin classes (in the past, some had waited until their senior year before taking what was supposed to be an entrance exam). The board also urged Cal State campuses to work closely with local public schools so students would be better prepared for college-level work. And the trustees called for improvements in teacher education, since Cal State campuses train about 60 percent of California's new public school teachers.

The numerical goals set forth in the trustees' policy are not likely to be achieved. Since 1996, the percentages of first-time freshmen needing remedial help in math or English have edged upward.
In 1997, former Cal State Chancellor Barry Munitz issued an executive order stating that "campuses are encouraged to establish and enforce limits on remedial/developmental activity and to advise students who are not making adequate progress in developing foundational skills to consider enrolling in other educational institutions as appropriate."

Charles B. Reed, the current chancellor, has been pressing the campuses to reduce the number of remedial students and has cited the Northridge summer program as one promising approach to the problem.

The 1997 executive order has been widely interpreted on the 22 campuses as meaning students must complete their remedial work in one academic year, or at the most three semesters or four quarters. This language does not appear in the executive order but is said to have been included in a follow-up letter from the chancellor's office.

What all this linguistic dancing about means is that the system is trying to tighten up on remedial instruction while not upsetting key legislators by refusing to admit large numbers of underprepared students.

"I think we're gaining ground on the problem," Trustee Pesqueria said. "The message is getting out and I think the numbers (of remedial students) will start to come down, except perhaps at some of the 'problem' campuses. Everything should fall into place in the next few years, if we don't have any political bombshells."

Elena Marchisotto, who runs the remedial math program at Cal State Northridge, also thinks "things are going to get better -- the summer programs are successful, we're doing more work with the high schools, so students are better prepared when they get here, and the students themselves seem to be taking this more seriously."

Photos by Axel Koester , for CrossTalk

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