Low Scores Usher in Cal State University ‘Early Start’ Program

Published April 9, 2010

The California State University Board of Trustees has approved a measure to require tens of thousands of students who perform poorly on the Early Assessment Program test in their junior year of high school to take remedial courses in math and English before entering a CSU school. The Early Start program is set to launch in 2012.

Lance Izumi, a member of the California Community Colleges System board of governors and director of education policy at the Pacific Research Institute in San Francisco, says remediation is a big problem for California’s colleges and universities.

“About six out of 10 entering college need help getting past the remedial level even though they’re required to have at least a ‘B’ average to get into the state university system,” Izumi said.

The EAP test is a voluntary portion of a California standardized test designed to measure how prepared a student is for college-level coursework in math and English. Approximately 93 percent of students opt to take the EAP portion.

“It’s really a diagnostic test to give them a heads-up that they should do some extra work or they’re going to have a lot of extra work once they get to college,” Izumi explained.

No Effect on Admissions

Although students who fail the EAP test would be required to participate, failing the Early Start program would not prevent them from entering a CSU college.

“Early Start does not mean we will delay admissions. It means we want students to address deficiencies earlier,” said Jeri Echeverria, CSU executive vice chancellor and chief academic officer, in a statement about the program.?
Low achievement in math and English is not limited to districts with low-income families, Izumi notes.

“The interesting thing is that when you look at some of the schools in wealthy neighborhoods, they’re not doing much better than others,” said Izumi. “Take Beverly Hills High School, for example. You’d think that of all places Beverly Hills High probably has a pretty high passage rate. But only 7 percent last year scored college-ready for English, with 96 percent of the kids voluntarily taking the exam. That’s shocking.”

Could Be Money-Saver

Individual CSU campuses, many of which already offer programs helping students to improve their skills before arriving at college, would have to fund their own Early Start courses under the plan. The 23-campus Cal State system faces a $584 million budget deficit this year.
?Izumi says the Early Start program could save students and the university money in the long term, however.

“This is a huge expense for the university and of course an inconvenience for the students, who are under the impression that they’ve done all that they need to do to get into higher education,” said Izumi. “If students succeed in the Early Start program, they won’t have to pay for and take remedial classes that they won’t get any credit for while in college. These are classes that they would have to take during their freshman year.”

‘Early Start’ Too Late?

Detractors of the program primarily take issue with the plans for its implementation and likelihood of success.

“Our objection is that it is unlikely to be effective,” says San Jose State University professor Stefan Frazier. “If it was a trial where they wanted to see how it worked, so be it. If it works, great, move along with it. But they’re actually imposing the entire thing on everyone by 2012.”

Frazier, a coordinator of writing, sees the program as a too-little, too-late approach to deep-seated problems in the link between K-12 education and academic expectations held by colleges. “The lack of development in writing happened over many, many years from elementary through high school,” said Frazier.

“You’re not going to fix that in a four-week summer session, even an eight-week one.  That’s just not how writing works or mature thinking develops. The idea that they’re going to ‘remediate,’ an idea I don’t like, in a short summer program is not well thought through,” said Frazier.

High School Disconnect

Izumi agrees the problem of underprepared students requires greater attention in high school and earlier grades.

“Part of it is the kids not getting the proper type of instruction from the high schools,” said Izumi. “We should be getting the high schools to understand what higher education expects, and then mold their curriculum to avoid mediation.”

“Different expectations get different grading systems,” Izumi added. “If you ask a kid to write his opinions and he does so and gets an ‘A’ or a ‘B’, then he has met those expectations, but that doesn’t signify that the student has been focusing on coursework in a way that the college level focuses on it.”

Frazier is familiar with the problem. “A lot of students that I teach in my basic writing class, I ask them what happened so that they’re not prepared, and they often tell horror stories where English teachers only show movies, or they don’t do any writing, they’re just reading novels,” said Frazier.
“What high schools teach and what college requires can be quite different.” Frazier noted. “We know that more and more there are differences in goals and communications. People are trying to bridge that gap.”

Rob Goszkowski ([email protected]) writes from San Francisco, California.