Chain of Blame

By Jeanne Ponessa — May 22, 1996 22 min read
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Northridge, Calif.

It’s second period at James Monroe High School, and Daniel Freeman is trying as hard as he can to help his 11th-grade American literature class construct an essay.

He wants his students to describe how their personal experiences have been shaped by other people and events. But what he gets instead are glazed-over looks and baleful shrugs.

“Give me a topic sentence from your experience,” says Freeman, an energetic man who bounds around the room as he speaks. He stops in front of one student and looks her in the eye.

“I can’t,” she protests. “My head will explode.”

“If it does, we’ll clean it up,” he responds good-naturedly. He’s already teased and cajoled them this morning and offered bonus points to students for volunteering examples. “I’ll even give you a hint for the first word,” he says. He writes the letter “I” on the board and turns around to scan the sea of blank faces.

“I have been shaped in many ways,” another student offers tentatively.

“OK, now how have you been shaped?” Freeman writes her sentence on the board, turns back around, and the gentle tug-of-war continues.

Later, after the students have left the room, he admits that it’s difficult to get that particular class motivated. “When I ask them to give me a topic sentence, it’s like pulling teeth.” But at least they show up, Freeman says. Last year, when the class met during first period, half the students would habitually walk in late.

Almost all of these 19 juniors, whom Freeman describes as average students, want to go on to college. Many will try for California State University at Northridge, just three miles down the road. They’ll get in if they maintain a C-plus average in the basic required classes and earn a combined score of at least 900 out of a possible 1600 on the Scholastic Assessment Test. But if they are admitted and can’t pass Cal State’s English Placement Test or its Entry-Level Mathematics Exam as incoming students, they’ll have to take remedial, or developmental, courses.

And then they’ll become another statistic in what has turned into a heated debate in the 326,000-student California State University system, and in many state university systems around the country. How much responsibility should state universities bear in bringing students up to speed for college-level work? And what happened--or didn’t happen--that allowed so many students to get so far behind in their first 12 years of education?

According to a recent study by the Washington-based American Council on Education, 13 percent of undergraduates in all public and private institutions needed some kind of remedial class in the 1992-93 school year. Researchers there say it’s difficult to put a dollar figure on the amount spent nationally on remedial education because states count such costs differently. But it’s clear that the amount of money needed to offer an increasing number of remedial classes has many states putting on the brakes.

In Massachusetts, for example, the Higher Education Coordinating Council recently voted to limit admissions at state universities for students needing remedial education and to place remedial-education responsibilities with community colleges. The Kansas legislature recently approved a measure to strengthen state college admissions requirements. And last year, Florida lawmakers considered, but later dropped, language that would have allowed fines for school districts whose graduates arrive at state colleges unprepared.

In California, the growing need for remedial education has been a matter of concern in the University of California system, which admits the top 12.5 percent of the state’s high school graduates, and a matter of heated debate in the 22-campus California State University system, which admits the top third.

At Cal State, figures released in March show that 49 percent of incoming freshmen in fall 1994 needed remedial English, and 54 percent needed remedial math. The university system spent $9.3 million for remedial education that year, and administrators estimate that the price tag is now closer to $10 million. There’s a cost to students, too: They don’t receive grades or baccalaureate credit for remedial courses. The more courses they take, the longer--and more expensive it is--for them to finish their degrees.

Cal State’s initial response was to clear the table of the problem: A proposal before the system’s board of trustees last year would have eliminated remedial classes by 2001. But after an outpouring of public opposition in hearings across the state, the trustees backed off. Instead, they voted to support a more comprehensive strategy that calls for greater cooperation with the K-12 educational system, better definitions of the skills required for college, and earlier assessments of college-bound high school students.

The plan calls for a reduction in the number of remedial classes over an 11-year period so that by 2007, only 10 percent of entering freshmen will need the special courses. The plan also establishes two intermediate benchmarksa 10 percent reduction in the number of freshmen who need remedial coursework by 2001 and a 50 percent reduction by 2004.

The trustees’ committee on educational policy, in recommending the new strategy, blamed the problem on a number of “complicating factors” including limited resources and increasing numbers of bilingual students in California classrooms. The committee also acknowledged Cal State’s own role in the problem--failing to equip the teachers it trains to deal with changing classrooms, for example, and failing to effectively communicate the university’s expectations to the state department of education.

The California Education Round Table--an organization of officials from the state department of education, the California State University, the University of California, the state’s community-college system, and other higher-education administrators--has since pledged to work to develop high school graduation standards and a program for assessing student performance.

But the release of statistics showing that staggeringly large numbers of Cal State students needing remediation--more than eight out of 10 freshmen at one campus--rekindled the debate and sparked angry rhetoric. Given that the Cal State schools take the top third of California high school students, an Orange County Register editorial wondered, “What, then, must the abilities of the middle third or the bottom third be like? What exactly is going on during all those hours in the classroom?” The Los Angeles Times also clucked disapprovingly at Cal State itself. “By softening its stand on admissions, Cal State is failing to push K-12 educators toward excellence,” its editorial writers said. “It also is failing to encourage high achievement by students, and ultimately is diminishing the value of a CSU degree.”

The new statistics focused particularly unwelcome attention on Cal State Northridge, which had one of the neediest populations in terms of remedial education. Nearly 70 percent of incoming students who were assessed at at the campus were found to need remedial work in math and English.

The topic is now so sensitive at the school, in fact, that administrators and teachers have been extremely protective of their students since the report came out. They limit visitors’ access to classrooms and interviews with students.

But teachers and administrators at both the college and high school levels seem to agree that it is counterproductive to follow the “chain of blame,” where the universities blame the high schools, the high schools blame the middle schools, and the middle schools blame the elementary schools for poor preparation.

Carol Radin, a college counselor at the 3,200-student Granada Hills High School near the CSUN campus, says that there’s no constructive action that results when each level blames the level beneath it for students’ remedial needs. “So what are we going to do, go back to the 1st-grade teacher and yell at her?” she asks.

Still, even without blaming a specific school or teacher, the dilemma is clear: Students are making the leap from high school to college without being ready for the material, and some factor or factors have allowed them to get that far without knowing what they need to know.

Cal State Northridge sprawls over a large area in the San Fernando Valley near Los Angeles. It’s sunny and open, with a view of mountains in the distance. But the campus, still recovering from the January 1994 earthquake centered here, is dotted with trailers and temporary structures while the university undergoes extensive reconstruction.

In one of those trailers is Hart Schulz, who teaches one of the lowest-level developmental English classes. His students, who are mostly non-native English speakers, are sitting around tables in the bare-walled room as they plod through Edward Albee’s “The Zoo Story.”

They generally read excerpts from anthologies or essays, but today they’re working with the book itself, with Shulz reading the part of one character and a student reading the other.

Shulz stops frequently to ask the students about meanings of phrases or metaphors. A handful of the 13 students contributes actively while the rest remain silent. Shulz later explains that some of the students who have particular difficulties with English are reluctant to speak with a visitor in the classroom. But of course this classroom--and the remedial education program as a whole--is not just limited to students with limited English proficiency.

“They’re behind in virtually everything,” Shulz says of his class. “Most of them would not be in college if it were not for developmental classes.”

Pamela Bourgeois, the coordinator of the developmental-writing program at CSUN’s English department, has come to observe the class. Bourgeois says that for many of the students in the developmental-English program, whether they’re bilingual or not, it’s hard to assess what they’ve actually learned in high school. “Many of them say, ‘We’ve never written,’” she says. “I don’t know whether that’s true or not.”

But regardless of what they’ve been taught in the past, Bourgeois points out, the fact is that a large majority of the students need remedial help. “We’re wondering, why are we calling this developmental when everybody needs it? Why don’t we just give it to everyone?” she asks.

Rosentene Purnell coordinates a similar writing program in the pan-African studies department geared toward African-American students. Most of her students haven’t received systematic help on their writing in high school, she says. If they had, the writing process would have been “demystified” for them. Her ideal vision of progress on the remedial-education front, she says, would be more attention to that kind of work in the K-12 system.

“First and foremost, students should begin writing in elementary school--it helps reduce the fear,” she says. “I would like the high schools and the elementary schools to have them write something every day and not be afraid.”

In a different cluster of trailers on the other side of campus, large groups of students are working on math problems ranging from functions to rational exponents.

Elena Marchisotto, a math professor who is the faculty adviser to the developmental-math program, explains that the instructors keep their lectures down to only 10 minutes so students can spend the remaining 40 minutes working on problems in small groups. So in each trailer, groups of 35 to 40 students are talking and comparing notes while an instructor and two tutors stroll around the classroom answering questions.

Marchisotto and several of the instructors say that many of the remedial students have gone through high school math classes without gaining a real understanding of the subject matter. “We’ve found that they’ve failed in high school, but somehow there’s a C on their report card,” Marchisotto says.

One of the students, working through quadratic equations on a computer in a developmental-math trailer, says that his unfinished math requirement is the one hurdle preventing him from completing his degree in accounting. He complains that quadratic equations seem irrelevant to his future work, yet he says he regrets not being able to fulfill this requirement earlier. The student, who asks not to be identified, grumbles that he should have learned the material in high school.

With that student’s complaints in mind, a visit to the area’s local high schools reveals that concerns about college preparation--or lack thereof--are at the top of the agenda for many teachers.

In Henry Weiner’s introduction to psychology class at Granada Hills High School, for example, it’s hard to get by without writing, and it’s impossible to get by without hearing about college.

“Typed is what the college wants to see,” he tells the class as he briskly describes the list of requirements for an upcoming research paper. “The UC [University of California] system wants endnotes. They’ve wanted them for 20 years,” he continues. Hands shoot up all across the room as students ask to be reminded what an endnote looks like, what a bibliography does, and how to choose an appropriate topic.

Then Weiner tells the students, mostly seniors, that he wants to meet with each one of them at least four times before the paper is due. “I want to see your writing, guys,” he says. “I’m getting you ready for college.” The phrase “getting ready for college” seems to have become a kind of mantra and a way of justifying class requirements.

In fact, Weiner confides later, only about one-third of the 34 students will go on to college, but he wants them all to write because he believes they’ll need it to survive. Weiner used to be an English teacher himself, but he got frustrated because the classes were so large. Now he’s still frustrated, he says, because he feels the current English teachers aren’t teaching the students how to write.

“When they come to me as 9th and 10th graders, they come with very poor skills,” he explains. In general, he says, his students “don’t write with any examples, they write in generalities, they write in first person, they don’t do things they should have learned a long time ago.”

His harsh assessment of students’ preparation seems surprising. Granada Hills students score well above state averages in California skills tests, and the high school had more students admitted to the selective University of California system in 1994 than any other school in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

But at least one Granada Hills student shares a similar view of course requirements. “Most classes require so little of you, you could scream,” says junior Bianca Karim, who does most of her homework in school. “I don’t understand how you can have such low requirements--that’s why you have the problems in college.”

Back at the 2,800-student James Monroe High School, it’s not always a battle for English teacher Daniel Freeman to get his students involved. In his 10th-grade honors English class, for example, students wave their hands frantically to get chosen to read excerpts from Shakespeare’s “Much Ado About Nothing.” They read along smoothly except when they stumble across unfamiliar words, such as “pernicious,” which they then discuss.

But in the courtyard outside the classrooms, one of Freeman’s colleagues takes time out to offer a different, critical perspective on students’ readiness for college. Michael Duckworth taught for 14 years, took 14 years off to go to law school and practice law, and returned to the classroom as an English teacher this year. He is amazed by how much is different now.

“We’ve got kids in honors classes who probably shouldn’t be there, but they’re brighter than normal so we put them there,” he says. “The kid I give a B to won’t get a B at CSUN, but if we go strictly by the book, half of my honors class would have failed.”

Duckworth says that the term “honors” is probably a misnomer but notes that the school does not offer remedial classes. “We have to have some level that’s advanced because we don’t have remedial,” he says. “Our basic is kind of like remedial, and our so-called honors is more like a college-prep bordering on basic.” Although the honors curriculum is the same as it always was, Duckworth says, students aren’t retaining as much as they should.

Richard Browning, the director of high school instruction for the Los Angeles public schools, says schools tend to avoid placing students in a “remedial track.” For example, only about 3 percent of the district’s 9th graders are enrolled in a remedial reading class, he says. The district is about to begin a four-year plan to phase out remedial classes and find new ways to address the needs of students who are not achieving at grade level. Browning doesn’t expect that those students will have much of an effect on regular classes. “If you had a class of 30, maybe one student would have been in that [remedial] class.”

Duckworth himself doesn’t fault the high schools for doing the best they can with the students they get. It seems to be the colleges, he says, that haven’t found a way to respond to the realities of changing demographics and the limited English proficiencies of many students.

“From what I read, it appears to me that high schools have done all the changing--the university doesn’t move,” Duckworth says. “If it doesn’t change, it’s always going to be disappointed,” he adds. “There’s definitely a difference between what it wants and what it gets.”

If teachers can offer a front-line assessment of students’ college readiness, then it’s the guidance counselors who have a firsthand view of the transition process. And some guidance counselors have a different perspective: They fear that the Cal State system is taking students who simply aren’t ready.

The counseling offices of both Granada Hills and Monroe, similarly decorated with college pennants from around the country, are busy places. Staff members there answer questions ranging from “Should I go to college?” to “What do I write on this line of the financial-aid form?” For students who are the first in their families to go to college, the counselors have become invaluable allies.

At Monroe, 25 percent to 30 percent of seniors go on to four-year colleges, and a large portion of those continue in the California State University system. Many of those students are lured to--and choose--Cal State at Northridge.

College counselor Steve Kleinberg says that CSUN maintains an active recruiting presence at Monroe. But he has noticed that while Cal State schools in theory take students from the top third, in practice they offer many so-called “special admit” slots from below that pool. “I would bet that state schools dip a lot lower because of their need for students,” he says.

At Granada Hills, where Carol Radin is a counselor, 54 percent of last year’s senior class went on to four-year colleges. Since the Northridge campus is just a few blocks down the street, it maintains an active recruiting schedule at Granada Hills.

Radin has also begun to question the California State University system’s admissions policies, and she wonders about the cases where the school waives some requirements to accept a more diverse pool of students.

“The CSUs are heavily recruiting, and, in many cases, they are taking students who should go to community college,” she says. “I have students below the eligibility requirement for CSU who have been accepted, and I know they don’t have the skills.”

Like Kleinberg, Radin is concerned that the quality of accepted students has slipped. “These kids that they are taking now, they never would have been taken 10 years ago,” she says.

That perception seems to have filtered down to the students at some level. One Granada Hills 11th grader, who aspires to go to Georgetown University in Washington, says the Northridge campus has a local reputation of having an easy acceptance policy. “Basically, if you live in the area, you’re in. If you live across the street, you’re in,” says Tariq Abu-Baker.

But another Granada Hills junior who hopes to go to the Cal State campus is more wary about hurdles she has yet to overcome. Mayra Lopez, who is eyeing the teacher education program there, says that it’s hard to get good grades and hard to get into college. She says that, in order to get into the university, she might have to go to summer school to boost a sagging biology grade.

For its part, the Cal State system stands behind its admissions policies, which administrators spell out as follows: To be accepted through regular admission, students must complete a list of high school course requirements and have a combined grade-point average and standardized test score that places them among the upper one-third of California high school graduates.

For example, all students with a GPA of 3.0 or higher are accepted. Those with a GPA of 2.99 need only a combined score of 510 on the SAT I, while those with an average of 2.0 need a combined SAT score of 1,300. Students with GPAs below 2.0 do not qualify for regular admission.

Cal State raised its entrance standards three years ago, and administrators have said that some of the demand for remedial classes today may stem from that. High schools may just be starting to catch up the new requirements by offering more math classes, for example.

But Cal State grants admissions exemptions for certain students, at the discretion of the individual campuses, as long as the systemwide “special admits” remain at 8 percent of entering students. Half the special admits come from the Educational Opportunity Program, which admits low-income and ethnically underrepresented students who are “disadvantaged because ofeconomic and educational background,” and half come from miscellaneous exceptions such as those for athletes or for students who only need to make up one classto qualify.

Marsha Hirano-Nakanishi, the director of analytic studies for the Cal State system, explains that the system had severe budget cuts and had to restrict enrollment and outreach during 1991 and 1992 but is now back in a growing admissions cycle. “Now that the recession is over, we’re in a healthier budget situation, and campuses are going back and trying to re-establish good relationships” with high schools, she says.

Hirano-Nakanishi says the percentage of special admits has not gone up. But she notes that the university system is conducting an ongoing examination of those students’ special needs. “Certainly, the issues about special admits are issues we talk about on the executive and on the campus levels--when you bring someone in by exemption, you’re really saying ‘I can get you over this,’” she says.

In fact, while only 43 percent of the regular-admission freshman needed remedial English help in 1994, 81 percent of the special admits needed remediation. Similarly, while 48 percent of the regular-admission freshmen needed remedial math classes, 83 percent of the special admits needed those classes.

Hirano-Nakanishi admits that there might be better ways to handle the large numbers of students needing remediation. But for now, she says, “we’re really trying to define the problem and see what the trade-offs are.”

In the face of this growing need for remedial help, instructors at Cal State Northridge themselves appear to embrace their students’ needs and don’t appear to resent having to spend time teaching what should be K-12 skills. Marchisotto of the math department says it doesn’t matter to her how her students learn as long as they do so. “What we do in our program is recognize that students learn differently,” she says.

Purnell of the pan-African studies writing program says she hopes administrators and teachers will someday eliminate the term “remedial,” which she finds demeaning, in an effort to change the overall attitude toward students’ different abilities.

“I would also like instructors to have respect for students as people and to somehow let them know that they’re not inadequate,” she says. “There’s a distinction between the person and the product.”

Taking the Test

Following are sample questions excerpted from the California State University system’s English Placement Test.

1. Choose the best word to substitute for the underlined portion containing gliff, a nonsense word.

The water looked fine for swimming, but in fact the currents in the river were gliff.

a. contaminated
b. soothing
c. treacherous
d. unnoticeable

2. The two following sentences have an implied logical relationship. Read the sentences and the question that follows, and then choose the answer that identifies the relationship.

Donna is six feet tall.
Her cousin is two inches shorter than she is.

What does the second sentence do?

a. It provides an example.
b. It makes a comparison.
c. It makes an exception.
d. It emphasizes something.

3. Select the best version of the underlined part of the sentence. Choice (A) is the same as the underlined portion of the original sentence.

Painters studied in Florence for the opportunity both to live in Italy as well as the art treasures to be seen there.

a. as well as the art treasures to be seen there
b. to see the art treasures there
c. and for seeing the art treasures there
d. as well as seeing the art treasures there

4. The following question presents a topic and four sentences. Select the sentence that provides the best support for the topic presented.

Chester Nakamura is an expert on Samurai swords.

a. The swords are richly decorated, and their engravings have meaning to the collector.
b. Collectors around the world seek his advice about swords they plan to buy.
c. Each Samurai took pride in his sword.
d. Many people in the United States have extensive collections of such swords.

(The answers are C, B, B, and B.)

Following are sample questions excerpted from the California State University system’s Entry-Level Mathematics Exam.

1. -2r (3r^2 - 2rs) =

a. 6r^3 + 4rs
b. 6r^3 - 4r^2s
c. - 6r^3 + 2rs
d. - 6r^3 + 4r^2s e. - 6r^3 - 4r^2s

2. ((t^2 - t)/ 3) / (1/3t) =

a. (t - 1)/9
b. (t^3 - t^2)/ 9
c. 9 /(t - 1)
d. t - 1 e. t^3 - t^2

3. A theater has 25 rows, each with 12 seats. At a certain performance there were, on the average, 3 empty seats per row. What was the attendance at that performance?

a. 225
b. 264
c. 297
d. 300
e. 375

4. The lengths of the two longer sides of a right triangle are 7 and 9, respectively. What is the length of the shortest side?

a. 2
b. 4 square root of 2
c. square root of 130
d. 16
e. 32

(The answers are D, E, A, and B.)

The California State University system requires first-time freshman applicants to have completed, with a grade of C or better, the following courses:

  • English, four years.
  • Mathematics, three years: algebra, geometry, and intermediate algebra.
  • U.S. history, one year.
  • Science, one year with laboratory: biology, chemistry, physics, or other acceptable laboratory science.
  • Foreign language, two years in the same language, subject to waiver for applicants demonstrating equivalent competence.
  • Visual and performing arts, one year: art, dance, drama/theater, or music.
  • Electives, three years: selected from English, advanced mathematics, social science, history, laboratory science, foreign language, visual and performing arts, and agriculture.

Source: California State University system.

A version of this article appeared in the May 22, 1996 edition of Education Week as Chain of Blame


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