Garrison Keillor has long told stories about Lake Wobegon, his mythical home out there on the edge of the prairie "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." California State University is inventing its own Lake Wobegon in dealing with entering freshmen who need to take remedial classes in math and English.
For years, Cal State University has had a significant remediation problem, spending about $30 million annually - or 2 percent of its instructional budget -- on preparing entering freshmen for college-level work. In spring 2004, it rolled out the Early Assessment Program to reduce its remedial burden. Prospective students take a test before their high-school senior year that tells them if their English and math skills are college-level. If not, they are encouraged to take courses to correct their deficiencies before enrolling in the fall.
Up through 2010, the percentage of students in need of remedial math and/or English remained relatively stagnant. Then came a remarkable drop. The percentage of entering freshmen in need of remediation in math and English fell 13 points, from 57 percent in 2010 to 44 percent in 2011. That translates to about 8,000 fewer freshmen in remedial classes. 2012 saw similar results.
Was the early-warning program beginning to pay off? Not exactly. CSU instead moved the goal posts to make it easier for students to avoid having to take remedial classes.
Is this what we really want from our postsecondary institutions at a time when many employers in the state already decry that too many graduates are ill-prepared for the workforce?
To see what Cal State University did, consider the English Placement Test, whose scores range from 120 to 180. Previously, students scoring below 151 were slotted in a remedial writing class. In June 2010, CSU Executive Order No. 1048 lowered that cutoff score to 147, effective for freshmen enrolling in fall 2011. Comparable proficiency cutoff scores on the SAT and ACT entrance tests were lowered to correspond to the new English cutoff score.
The lower standard reduces two problems at once: Fewer students score below average in English and math, and CSU's remediation costs fall. Meantime, however, the problem of underprepared students is passed on to general-education professors who, in turn, may pass it on to future employers.
To be fair, the cutoff score of 151 was an arbitrary number when Sacramento legislators chose it 40 years ago, and the lowered number is just as arbitrary today. The problem is twofold. There is little agreement about what constitutes "college-ready" writing skills, and there is a great deal of disagreement about the validity of high-stakes timed tests such as the English Placement Test.
Yet the answer shouldn't be to create a Lake Wobegon where fewer students need to take remedial English not because they are writing better but because the cutoff score has been lowered.
The better long-term way to deal with CSU's remediation problem is to raise expectations and provide the resources for students to meet them. The system has already taken an important step in that direction with its Early Start Program, which allows unprepared students to take their required remedial class or classes on one of its 23 campuses before starting their freshman year.
Unfortunately, faculty has resisted implementing the program. As discouraging, offerings so far are a hodgepodge of self-paced online courses, hybrids mixing online with in-class instruction, and traditional classes. Classes can run from just a week to six weeks.
San Diego State University's remedial English program appears to have the right components. Instructors work with students in a hands-on environment over an extended period of time, not a week or two. Classes are small, and the focus is on writing. The intent is to make students active learners rather than passive participants.
This approach is similar to one that I have used for a decade in teaching college-bound youth to write better. Improving students' writing requires helping them revise their papers so they will understand their mistakes and overcome them. That takes time. And writing gains need to be measured through rigorous pre- and post-testing.
Cal State University changed its English and math remedial cutoff scores at a time when the Great Recession was starving state government coffers. With passage of Proposition 30 last fall, the money pressure has eased enough to allow administrators not only to reconsider their decision to lower math and English standards but also to make a larger commitment of resources, financial and instructional, to its Early Start Program.
Anything else fools us into thinking that all Cal State students are above average, and presumably all faculty are strong and administrators good-looking.