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After 35 years in public education as a high school English teacher and university administrator, I began my second life as a freelance writer, winning San Diego Society of Professional Journalist awards for my opinion columns in the former San Diego daily North County Times and the San Diego Free Press.

Friday, July 15, 2011

College Bound Students Still Fail the Grade

Reports of school test scores have been depressingly predictable.

No Child Left Behind has long been left behind. All students will not be grade-level proficient in English and math by 2014. That's unlikely to happen before 2030, given the glacial rate of improvement.

And despite all the hand-wringing, finger-pointing, and high hopes for charter schools, the achievement gap dividing students by wealth and skin color remains unchanged.

One of the few local success stories can be found at Cal State San Marcos, where dramatic improvement has been made in helping entering students who were unprepared for college-level English and math courses. The sad side of the story is that so many college bound students need remediation.

In 1997 the California State University Board of Trustees set a goal for 90 percent of its entering students to be fully prepared in English and math by 2007. At the time, only about half the freshman class was ready for college-level instruction in both subjects.

The CSU launched an effort to improve student preparedness by requiring applicants with low SAT scores to take English and math proficiency tests before enrolling. If they fail to get passing scores, they're not denied admission, but test results are used to identify those who need remediation to gain college-level proficiency in the two subjects by the end of their first year. If they don't make the grade in both subjects by the end of the year, they face disenrollment.

Unfortunately, there's been very little improvement over the last 10 years in the number of college-bound high school graduates who are fully proficient in both subjects before applying for admission to the CSU. That imposes an additional financial burden on families and on campuses that must offer unprepared students a series of high school level courses in their freshman year.

Over the last decade the percent of CSU entering freshmen unprepared in either English or math, or both, has declined only slightly from 62 to 58 percent. The percent of that group successfully remediated in the first year has risen from 81 to 83 percent. At Cal State San Marcos the number of entering students needing remediation fell from 71 to 66 percent, while the number of those reaching proficiency in one year jumped from 60 to 84 percent.

The CSU is required by law to offer admission to the top third of California's high school graduates who've completed, with grades of "C" or higher, four years of English and three years of math, including two years of algebra.

You'd think more than half of those headed off to California's largest university would be college ready in both subjects.

But you'd be wrong.

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