A look at each freshman class each year at the California State University system in the last decade reveals a paradox in academic achievement: all the students have met CSU's class and grade requirements to gain acceptance yet every year a significant portion test unable to do college level math and English work.
It's called remediation and it exists - to varying degrees - at all 23 Cal State campuses. It's now caught the attention of more Sacramento officials.
What's behind California's high remediation rates?
According to the most recent numbers, one in three freshmen entering the California State University system in fall of 2012 failed the math test that measures whether they're ready for college work. About the same proportion failed the English test.
To help them catch up, Cal State spends about $30 million every year on remediation courses.
In January the independent Legislative Analyst Office (LAO) issued a report that urged lawmakers to dig deeper into the reasons why so many Cal State freshmen needed remedial education.
“One is CSU’s placement exams, which is really identifying these students as needing remediation, maybe there’s a problem with that,” said Jameel Naqvi, an analyst with the LAO. The LAO also recommended lawmakers look at eligibility policies, and the quality of education in public high schools.
The campus with the highest proportion of remedial students - Cal State Dominguez Hills in the South Bay - is in many ways like all other Cal State campuses. It overflows with young men and women with big dreams.
One of these students is Gabrielle Edwards who graduated from a Northern California high school last year and is studying to become a veterinarian. There’s one thing standing in her way.
After Edwards got her acceptance letter to Dominguez Hills, she learned she’d failed the university's entry-level math test. When you combine the math and English remediation rates, it's a problem that 44 percent of students in the Cal State system are facing.
It wasn’t a huge surprise to Edwards. She got Cs in high school math because she didn't study enough, she said. It was tough finding the motivation in a class of 36 students.
“The math teacher seemed really overwhelmed with all the students, she kinda chose which ones she wanted to talk to more and help," she said. "Me and a couple of other students were left behind while she moved on with the others.”
Seventeen thousand freshmen started at Cal State's 23 campuses in the fall of 2012 having failed CSU's math competency test. It's an exam that tests knowledge of percentages, exponents, and the Pythagorean Theorem. Nearly 19,000 students in the same freshman class needed English remediation to help them learn to write an essay and understand what they’re reading.
To get up to speed, Edwards is taking remedial intermediate algebra, along with 33 other students. Ashlee Armstrong is also in the class. She took advanced math in small classes at Locke High School in L.A., where she got good grades. The problem, she said, was that Cal State's math competency exam tested skills she'd forgotten.
“The placement test goes back to like maybe ninth or eighth grade math," she said. "And the classes that I was taking were higher level math classes. So you kind of forget the basic information that's on the tests.”
Armstrong has to pass this class to fulfill her goal of becoming a preschool teacher.
Getting remedial help early on
The class's instructor, Silvia Kang, has been teaching the class for five years. She's taught math in middle school and high school classrooms, as well. To make it work, she has to start with the building blocks.
“This problem is not going to be in your notes," she tells her students, as she scribbles fractions on an overhead projector. "So let's say we have one fifth plus two fifths, what I'm going to do is go over the basic rules of adding fractions.”
Adding fractions with the same denominator is a fourth and fifth grade skill.
“One thing that will solve remedial education in the Cal States is that the high school teachers are more accountable for their students,” she said.
Kang's point may be getting through to high school teachers. Remediation rates are much better than in 2006, when about 84 percent of Dominguez Hills’ freshmen failed the entry level math or English tests. Even after taking the remedial math class, half couldn't pass and were kicked out.
The improvement is due in part to changes put in place by math department chair John Wilkins. He took over as chair six years ago. One big change he made was to encourage instructors to pull struggling students aside to figure out how to help.
“We're not just helping students get ready for college math, we're helping students get ready for college,” Wilkins said.
Cal State also launched an “early start” program two years ago, allowing students to take remedial class during the summer at any Cal State campus or online.
But poor math and English skills among incoming freshmen continues to be a problem and it’s caught the attention of legislators in Sacramento.
“There is always enough blame to go around in the society,” said Das Williams, the chair of the state assembly higher education committee.
“I can tell you one of the things we can address as the legislature at this point in time is that schools have enough funding,”
Williams says new increases in funding to K-12 schools should have a trickle up effect - because as learning improves in high schools, the need for the California State University to have so many remedial classes should go down.
View remediation rates among CSU schools: