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In a recent quiz for her class of incoming Cal State Fullerton freshmen – who had all failed an algebra placement exam – Cherlyn Converse asked the students to solve a polynomial equation by factoring its properties.
The 35 students had 20 minutes to finish. Some turned in an answer within minutes, others nervously fiddled on papers until they arrived at a solution. For a few, time just ran out.
“These students come from different backgrounds and knowledge in math,” Converse said. “They’re learning at a different pace because of that. It’s up to us to bring everyone up to the same level.”
Converse’s students are among the 25,000 incoming California State University freshmen, or nearly half of all enrolled freshmen for this fall, required to participate in the system’s Early Start, a summer program for students who haven’t demonstrated they’re ready for college-level math or English courses.
It’s the second straight summer CSU has required the program for new freshmen who failed the system’s English or math placements tests.
Students are either enrolled in a week-long, one-unit course to help them prepare for remedial English or math classes this fall semester, or they’re enrolled in intense three- or four-unit courses spread over five weeks that could allow them to skip remedial classes altogether.
The courses, available at all 23 CSU campuses and online, are aimed at helping more students graduate on time and reducing the number of students dropping out of college.
“Early Start helps more students get a running start towards their degree, which means many of these students will get to go to graduate school, medical school, law school sooner rather than later,” Chancellor Timothy White said at a recent CSU Board of Trustees meeting. “While we may not be the cause of remedial education, we are in fact responsible to solve the problem.”
The high rate of incoming freshmen needing remedial education continues as a persistent problem for the 467,000-student CSU system. The percentage of freshmen in remedial education has gradually declined each year as high schools increase the emphasis on college readiness and the growth of the overall applicant pool has allowed the system to become more selective. But far too many students still arrive at CSU campuses unprepared for college-level math and English courses, officials said.
Last year, about 27 percent of admitted freshmen needed remediation in math, while 30 percent need it in English. About 16 percent needed remediation in both subjects.
Every student in Early Start passed all the necessary high school English, algebra and other advanced math courses to qualify for admission to CSU. Still, college placement tests determined these students needed remedial help. (Students who scored score high enough on SAT, ACT or Advanced Placement exams bypassed the placement tests and were considered college ready.)
Early Start courses are generally a review of material students should have learned in high school. Some students pick up the material immediately, while others struggle more.
“Early Start helps more students get a running start towards their degree, which means many of these students will get to go to graduate school, medical school, law school sooner rather than later,” said CSU Chancellor Timothy White.
Tania Ortiz, an incoming freshman from Tustin, is enrolled in both an algebra and English class at Cal State Fullerton. She attends the summer classes three days a week, for five hours a day.
Ortiz passed her pre-calculus class her junior year and earned As and Bs in all her English classes. But she did not earn a high enough score on the CSU placement tests.
“I had a difficult time remembering during the placement tests some of the concepts I had learned,” she said. “Now I’m spending my summer in school.”
Her algebra class covers equations and inequalities, algebraic expressions and functions including polynomial functions.
Her English class teaches students how to compose analytical college essays with appropriate thesis development, support and rhetorical strategies, and how to meet expectations of conventional and grammatical correctness.
Ortiz said the classes serve more as a refresher for what she already knows.
“I think a lot of students need this to get them up to speed on where they should be,” she said.
The English Placement Test, given over 1 hour and 45minutes, requires students to write an essay and tests reading and composition skills. It’s graded on a scale of 120 to 180, with a score of 147 considered passing.
The Math Placement Test, about 90 minutes long, measures intermediate algebra and geometry skills through 50 multiple-choice questions. The test is graded on a scale of 0 to 80 with a passing score of 50. The tests have remained largely unchanged since 2008.
Early Start began in 2012, required only for students scoring in the bottom quartile on the English placement test and those needing additional preparation in math, or about 15,200 incoming freshmen.
Last summer, all students who did not pass the placement tests, about 24,000 in total, were required to enroll in Early Start. Of those students, about 2,200 finished their college preparation requirements in English by taking the three- or four-unit courses, and began their freshman term ready to enroll in college-level English classes. About 3,700 entered eligible for college-math after completing their Early Start in-depth courses.
That pushed the number of freshmen not needing any remediation to 59 percent, up from 44 percent in 2010. In all, about 85 percent of students in Early Start last summer completed all remedial coursework by the end of their freshman year, also an improvement, up from about 70 percent in 2010.
That means more of these students are likely to stay in school and graduate on time, said Eric Forbes, CSU’s assistant vice chancellor for academic support.
Proficiency in English and math is vital for success in all other coursework, he said.
“It’s clear if you have to do remedial coursework at same time as you’re taking other college-level courses that require these basic skills, you’re not going to be successful,” he said.
Courses cost $186 per unit, similar to the regular semester costs for tuition and fees. Students who qualify can also receive financial aid.
Early Start also offers a preview for new students of what it’s like to attend college, Forbes said. Early Start courses are run entirely by CSU faculty either on college campuses or online.
Converse, the instructor teaching summer algebra, runs her the course like all her other traditional classes. She encourages students to learn through collaboration. Many of her lessons require students to work in small groups to solve a series of equations. Students then take turns at the white board explaining to classmates how they solved the problems.
“By the time they begin the fall semester, they’ll have a good sense of how college classes operate,” she said. “They can’t just sit quietly and hope no one calls on them anymore.”
At Cal State Los Angeles, incoming freshman Liz Aguilar, from El Monte, thought her summer was ruined when she learned she had to enroll in Early Start algebra.
“I remember thinking that I wouldn’t be able to go to the beach or travel. I was so bummed,” she said. “Now I feel totally different.”
Aguilar said the course was worthwhile because it’s prepared her for all other college-level work. Passing the summer course will also allow her to enroll in a college-credit algebra class in the fall.
“It’s almost like I started my college career early,” she said. “I’m now very confident that I can handle any class.”
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