By KERRY BENEFIELD
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT -SANTA ROSA, CA.
Despite a sparkling 3.29 grade point average in high school, nearly half of last year’s freshman class at California State University campuses was unqualified to take entry-level college English.
Nearly 40 percent were deemed unqualified to take freshman math.
Instead, this group of students with the overall B-plus average were diverted to remedial instruction to improve their skills.
“Why are they getting A’s and B’s in high school and they are not even ready to start college? That is what we are wondering as well. It’s a huge, huge subject of research right now,” said Matt Benney, executive director of budget and planning assessment at Sonoma State University’s student affairs and enrollment management department.
In Sonoma County, the percentage of students deemed unprepared for entry-level college English and math at the end of their junior years were 75 and 39 percent, respectively. Only a portion of those will be accepted into the CSU system.
The information comes from an optional set of questions that appear in the annual Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program. If students show adequate proficiency, they can bypass remedial English and math classes at CSU campuses as well as at Santa Rosa Junior College.
Local educators say the problem with what students learn in high school and what they need to know for college is complex and mired in bureaucracy.
In Sonoma County, the coursework a student needs for a high school diploma is not adequate to make them eligible to even apply to a CSU campus, let alone get in.
“When high school standards were being made, higher education was not invited to the table. There was no conversation of what was expected at the CSUs or UCs or community colleges for that matter,” said Katheryn Horton, Sonoma-Marin Regional Director of Cal-PASS, a statewide organization that analyzes student academic data.
That academic gap is exacerbated by the federal No Child Left Behind law that requires schools and districts to have every single student become 100 percent academically proficient by 2014.
“It’s much more about the STAR test and No Child Left Behind than it is about college preparation,” Horton said.
“There is a lot of emphasis in No Child Left Behind in bringing up the lowest students to a minimum level and not a lot of effort to get a solid performing student ready for college,” he said.
To combat that divide, CSU in 2004 launched an $8 million-a-year program to educate teachers about what college professors expect. The push is part of a wider CSU campaign to improve graduation rates.
“Their ability to read critically – expository reading – most English teachers weren’t teaching it. They preferred literature. It’s an area we referred to as undertaught,” said Allison Jones, assistant vice chancellor for academic affairs at CSU.
There also is concern that many students do not take a math class their senior year because upper-level math courses are not required for a high school diploma or admission to CSUs.
That lost year erodes much of a student’s math skills, officials said.
“A lot of seniors don’t necessarily go to school all day,” said Nancy Brownell, assistant superintendent of instruction at the Sonoma County Office of Education.
“They might be learning a lot of things in high school but are they learning exactly what they need to be successful in college? Some high schools do a better job in finding out what that is,” Benney said.
At Maria Carrillo High School in Santa Rosa, every member of the English department staff has been trained in the CSU-sponsored professional development in how to better teach expository reading and writing, said Pam Devlin, a veteran English teacher and the school’s data coach.
Maria Carrillo tops all Sonoma County high schools in the percentage of students deemed ready for CSU-level coursework in English at 47 percent, besting the countywide rate of 23 percent. The next closest campus was Technology High in Rohnert Park at 34 percent.
In math, 28 percent of the juniors at Maria Carrillo who took the voluntary assessment were deemed ready for college math. Forty-three percent were deemed “conditionally ready,” a term given to students who are urged to take a math class in their senior year to maintain their skills.
In Sonoma County, 14 percent of juniors were deemed ready for CSU math and 47 percent were conditionally ready. Statewide, those numbers were 13 percent and 44 percent, respectively.
Countywide, 79 percent of eligible students took the optional test in English and 80 percent took it in math.
Maria Carrillo’s results are part of a concerted effort by the staff to align what is taught in high school with what professors expect, Devlin said.
“What it has forced many high school teachers to do is to now be better at addressing non-fiction work in the classroom and having students do that analytical, expository writing,” she said.
Devlin, who said she has had advanced placement students deemed “unprepared,” called the numbers of students headed into their senior years unprepared for college work “shocking.”
“If they get a ‘not college ready,’ it’s a warning flag for them,” she said. “Because otherwise they are just spending their money remediating what should have been learned in high school.”
The CSU remediation program is largely successful. Of the freshman class that entered CSU in fall 2007, 80 percent who were tagged for remediation gained full proficiency before their second year, according to the CSU.
In the same class, 13 percent of those who were in need of remediation but who did not enroll in the course were eventually disenrolled. Another 2 percent dropped out.
Those resources would be better served advancing students toward their college diploma, not catching them up to speed, Benney said.
“It’s still a big problem,” he said. “Basically, it comes down to being able to pay for their remedial education. We don’t get extra money for students who come in needing remedial work.”
Those funds could be used to cut class sizes in more advanced courses or pay for additional programs, he said.
To address that, CSU six years ago launched a professional development program to train high school teachers across the state on what professors demand.
Since 2004, 68 Sonoma County teachers – 45 from Santa Rosa City Schools – have taken the CSU-sponsored professional development course, said Erik Fallis, spokesman for the Office of the Chancellor.
A study on the effectiveness of CSU’s $8 million-a-year program is expected this fall, Jones said.
The stakes are high.
The CSU this year launched an initiative to improve its six-year graduation rate by 8 percent by 2016, bringing it to 54 percent. Eliminating obstacles on students’ road to getting their diploma will help that systemwide effort, Benney said.
“What is at stake is when students enter the CSU or any college for that matter, if they enter unprepared to start college, their retention rate is going to be that much lower and therefore their graduation rate is is going to be that much lower,” he said.
Benney said even when students don’t drop out, those who struggle early are more likely to avoid strenuous majors like engineering and other sciences.