In the top third, but not ready for college

Overwhelmed with remedial students, California’s second-tier state university system will require a 15-hour  “Early Start” summer class for new students who aren’t prepared for college-level classes. California State University professors think it’s too little, too late, reports the San Jose Mercury News.

“I’m not at all optimistic that it’s going to help,” said Sally Murphy, a communications professor who directs general education at Cal State East Bay, where 73 percent of this year’s freshmen were not ready for college math. Nearly 60 percent were not prepared for college English.

“A 15-hour intervention is just not enough intervention when it comes to skills that should have been developed over 12 years,” Murphy said.

The CSU system admits freshmen whose grades and test scores place them in the top third of high school graduates. Yet, statewide,  64 percent in the 2010 entering class needed remedial work in math, English or both. Early Start is supposed to help more students complete remedial work in the first year. If they don’t, they won’t get a second year. The course may be taken online, at a CSU campus or at some community colleges.

The need for remediation is “a terrible indictment of the K-12 system,” said Jim Postma, a Chico State chemistry professor and chairman of the systemwide Academic Senate. “If a factory was building cars and the lug nuts kept falling off the tires, you would do something pretty dramatic about it. We keep adding the lug nuts back to the tires rather than trying to figure out what the problem is.”

More CSU students are taking basic skills classes at community colleges, competing for space with community college students who hope to transfer to four-year universities. “We’re all trying to figure out how to handle these students who are woefully unprepared,” said Mark Wade Lieu, an Ohlone College instructor who directs remedial education for the state’s community colleges.

About Joanne


  1. My district adopted a grading policy for this school year that:

    1) Mandated a minimum score of 50% on any assignment or assessment, even if the student did not attempt the assignment or was caught cheating on the assignment.

    2) Mandated a minimum score of 55% on any assignment or assessment that the student made a “good faith effort” on.

    3) Allowed a student to retake any assessment for a better grade

    4) Mandated a gradebook weighting of 70% for assessments and 30% for formative assignments

    5) Changed the grading scale so that an F was a 54% and lower, and a D was 55% to 69%.

    What do you think this did to the passing rate? Thankfully the teachers revolted and we have a much more sane grading policy for the second semester, but there are still problems.

    • that is insane. thankfully the teachers pushed back, but that ludicrous attitude toward assessment/grades still lurks within the district officials and it will come back around in some way. hold the line when that happens, gahrie!

  2. Maybe the CSU system is doing a fine job. Maybe the k-12 system is doing a fine job. If the system admits the top third, but only 40% are prepared for college english, we end up with .33 x .4 = 13.2. The top fifteen to sixteen percent of the IQ normal curve have IQs of 115 or higher (

    Charles Murray has opined that an IQ of 115 or higher is required to successfully complete a college degree: If we allow for the students who opt to attend more prestigious colleges, or who decide not to attend college, the 13% of California’s high school graduates who succeed in the CSU system probably all have IQs at or above 115.

    Is not preparing students for college who aren’t suited for college a failing of the school system? Will throwing more money at the problem solve it? Perhaps the high school and elementary teachers were able to prepare the student who were able to master the material. Simply setting the goal of college completion for all doesn’t mean that everyone receives significantly above-average intelligence and work ethic.

    • Ira Harden says:

      I think that you’re missing the point here. There is an increasing number and percentage of students who require remedial classes. These are the same students who graduated in the top third of their high school classes. Using your data, students who all have an adequate IQ should be prepared to perform college work – and they are not.

      • Cranberry says:

        The system is encouraging too many students to attend college. Finishing in the top third of a high school class does not mean that a student has an adequate IQ for college.

        Finishing in the top third of high school would presumably mean that the students might lie in the top third of the IQ distribution. However, only the top 15% are smart enough, according to some, to complete college. If that’s true, only the top _sixth_ are suited for college study, which does not contradict the fact that 40% of new college students at the second-tier state university system do not need remedial classes.

        In short, it isn’t the high school’s fault if the students can’t do college level work. Graduating in the top third of one’s high school class isn’t sufficient. “Remedial work” makes it sound as if the students didn’t learn enough to succeed in college. That may be so, but then it’s hard to explain why 40% don’t need remediation.

        It is possible that some or many high schools are doing a terrible job. From the East Coast, however, I have the impression that most California parents prefer the public university system, thus the students don’t hail exclusively from failed schools.

        Why aren’t the tests used to determine the need for remedial classes used for admission? Or the equivalent SAT/ACT score? It’s not doing a student any favors to admit him (with debt) to an academic environment he can’t handle.

  3. “The CSU system admits freshmen whose grades and test scores place them in the top third of high school graduates.”

    No, it doesn’t. The CSU has a minimum GPA that it pretends is the marker for the top third, which is a different thing entirely.

    You can get into the CSU on grades only, if you have a GPA above 2.5, and any charter or urban school worth its dedication to “social justice” knows how to rig a GPA.

    The best way to solve the funding problem at both the UC and the CSU would be to institute a simple SAT/ACT minimum that actually would limit it to the top 12% and the top 30%. The only problem is, that would leave out all but a few percentage points of African Americans and Hispanics.

    But whatever. It’s simply untrue to say that the CSU is admitting the top third. More accurate to say that the CSU’s original mandate is the top third, but they long ago stopped doing anything other than setting a GPA that wouldn’t get the state sued by various identity groups.

  4. With grade inflation rampant in K-12 anymore, and when students can’t handle placement exams (yeah, I had to take those back in 1981) to get a placement into math and english, it’s not a stretch that many of these students simply do NOT have the required skills to succeed in college (let alone earn a certificate or degree).

    Why colleges continue to admit persons who are simply NOT up to the task of doing college level coursework is beyond me (one possible reason, college has become a business, rather than a place of higher education).

    • tim-10-ber says:

      Bill — I agree completely.

      Sadly. colleges are in the money game big time..the more students the longer the delay to when they have to gut programs and staff once they only admit those kids truly college ready…so waiting for that day!

    • Why colleges continue to admit persons who are simply NOT up to the task of doing college level coursework is beyond me

      All the demands for “diversity” (of the “right” kind, not political or religious or from under-represented European groups) explain perfectly well why the admits are what they are.

  5. Engineer-Poet, many of the anglo admits are not qualified either, by yesterday’s standards.

    • True; an inevitable consequence of admitting more and having to be less choosy.  But deciding that the college-bound group needs to be bigger is one thing; doing what it takes to make it “inclusive” is something else entirely.

  6. The high school for which my children are zoned does not offer any honors courses until 11th grade. If we hope to get the top third of students academically prepared to do college-level work, they need to be tracked into more rigorous courses starting no later than the beginning of middle school. I don’t think that there is a shortage of students who have the brains to succeed at a CSU. I think, however, there is a decided shortage of school administrators with the cojones to resist “dumbing down” the curriculum in a misguided attempt at “college prep for all”.

  7. If we hope to get the top third of students academically prepared to do college-level work, they need to be tracked into more rigorous courses starting no later than the beginning of middle school.

    I’d be pleased to see your evidence supporting this statement.

    • I don’t have access to the full text of the article , but a meta-analysis showed clear positive effects of tracking for high-ability students.

      Intuitively, the sooner that schools separate smart kids into more rigorous classes, the greater the benefits to those students because the teacher can go at a faster pace and present more challenging material. I became much less bored in my classes growing up when they switched from heterogeneous to honors (5th for math & English, 7th for all the other subjects). I cannot imagine how awful it would’ve been had I been stuck in mixed classes until 11th grade.

      • Thank you. I could not access the full text either, but the abstract indicates that your conclusion is not supported by the article. There are clear positive effects from early tracking, yes; however, that does not lead to the conclusion that it’s necessary to prepare the top third of students to do college level work.

  8. Crimson Wife,

    My school was the first in the state back in the late 70’s to get the I.B. program (which it still has today). We didn’t have such concepts such as honors courses, since class placement back then depended on two things, grades in pre-req coursework, or stanine scores (1-3 low, 4-6 average, 7-9 high).

    The highest level math (non I.B.) our school offered was analysis (pre-calculus), and we also offered physics II, chemistry II, and Biology II, along with anatomy and physiology (a very tough course for any student).

    When I was in middle school (known as junior high in those days), we didn’t have super rigorous coursework, but rather students got the same courses that everyone else did (math, science, english, social studies, P.E., industrial arts, home economics, etc). I suppose the main difference from back then compare to today is the fact that we didn’t have access to electronic calculators, the internet, computers, or all the gadgets available to students these days.

    Pencil, paper, eraser, chalk, blackboard, and four-lettered words were the order of the day (we’re talking the mid 70’s here).

  9. Thank you for sharing that brief, illuminating story. The gap between what the CSU system has been and what it has become documents the decline and fall of California. The tragedy increases when one considers what CSU could be in the 21st century if innovative educators embraced available and emerging technologies – and CSU chose dedicated, qualified, and motivated students.

    Why won’t that happen? Ah, there’s the rub.