On his first day this summer as Sacramento State president, Robert Nelsen singled out an unnamed local high school for its abysmally high share of graduates who need to take remedial courses upon arriving on campus. It was a sign, he said, that the university needs to help certain high schools prepare their students.
New Sacramento State data obtained by The Sacramento Bee suggests where university officials may start.
Among campuses in the Sacramento region, 89 percent of graduates from Burbank High School entering Sacramento State as freshmen this fall required remediation. More than 80 percent of graduates from three other local high schools found themselves in the same situation – Woodland, Grant Union and Pioneer.
The worst-performing class of graduates came from Angelo Rodriguez High School in Fairfield, where 90 percent of incoming Sacramento State students were directed to basic math or English classes.
Each of those high schools graduated students with qualifications on paper sufficient to meet California State University admissions standards – a 3.0 grade-point average on college prep courses or a combination of lower grades and high-enough standardized test scores. But the high remediation rates call into question just how well some schools are preparing their best students for college.
Experts say the primary factors are a lack of collaboration between universities and high schools, inadequate information about the expectations of college and an increase in the emphasis on attending college for students who previously would have pursued another track.
“Until recently, there was no effort to try to align the (university and high school) systems,” said Michal Kurlaender, a professor at UC Davis who is leading a team researching college readiness. “No one felt it was necessarily important. We focused on minimum competency like the high school exit exam.”
Among all freshmen entering California State University, Sacramento, this fall, 53 percent have to take remedial courses because they couldn’t pass placement tests for college-level math, English or both.
Students who fail the math test are required to enroll in a remedial class, while those who fail the English exam are given the choice of a remedial or standard course, said university officials. All are required to take a state-mandated college preparation course over the summer. Students who do not pass their remedial class within a year are sent to community college.
Nelsen sees the high remediation rates as a hurdle to students graduating in four years, a major goal of his presidency. The high number of students playing catch-up has been a perennial problem for California State University campuses. Students who take remedial courses don’t earn college credit and take longer to graduate, resulting in higher costs for students and taxpayers. It also diverts resources from degree-oriented coursework and leaves fewer university seats available.
At Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, university banners decorate a college career center, students fill out college applications and financial aid applications on the school website and teachers and administrators regularly engage students in conversations about going to college. A Parent University offers counselors and translators to help families learn what they need to do to help their children get accepted into college.
Despite that intense focus on college goals, only six of the 53 entering Sacramento State this fall tested high enough to do college-level work.
The problem often starts well before high school, said Principal Jim Peterson. Burbank faces additional challenges, as 72 percent of its 1,776 students are considered low-income, and about a quarter were English learners last year.
“In the case of our school, demographically, a lot of our students ... come to us below grade level,” Peterson said. “We work diligently as a team to get them thinking about college and get them moving in that direction. We push rigor in the classroom; nevertheless, we have kids that need some catching up.”
Remediation numbers grew even higher in recent years as school districts increased the expectation that all students will go to college, experts said. Many students are surprised to learn they failed the placement tests, said Ed Mills, vice president of student affairs at CSUS.
“It’s pretty devastating for a student to find out they are fully admissible, but they don’t test into college-level courses,” he said.
At Grant Union High School in Sacramento, all students are enrolled in college prep classes, said Jacqueline Perez, associate superintendent of teaching and learning at Twin Rivers Unified. Despite this, only 10 of the 54 students who were accepted into Sacramento State passed the placement tests in math and English.
The influx of students new to the college track or who decide late in their high school career to attend college means more support is needed at the college level, Kurlaender said.
The problem is exacerbated by the propensity of many seniors to take easier courses and study less their final year of high school. By then, many of the students have completed most of their requirements, taken their SAT tests and sent in their college applications.
“Many look at the senior year as a time to goof off,” said Mills. He recommends that students take the math and English placement tests their junior year when they are still fresh from their SAT tests and math coursework.
Analia Andrade, 18, was among those surprised to learn she had failed the math placement test for Sacramento State. She took four years of math and earned good scores while at East Union High School in Manteca. She graduated with a 3.8 grade-point average.
Half of the 18 East Union graduates entering Sacramento State required remediation, according to the data.
“I thought I was prepared for that test,” said the college freshman. “I was a little disappointed.”
Andrade said she concentrated too much on an Advanced Placement statistics class her senior year and allowed herself to get rusty at other types of math.
Several educators said they expect the new Common Core State Standards, which focus on critical thinking and analytical skills, to greatly reduce remediation rates.
Common Core instruction reflects the type of work expected at the college level, said Isidro Carrasco, assistant superintendent of educational services at Woodland Joint Unified School District, which had two of the worst-performing high schools based on Sacramento State remediation data.
He said Common Core also will help to align schools so that a 3.0 grade-point average in Woodland is equal to a 3.0 GPA in Davis or Sacramento, for example.
“What we are finding is that our students aren’t ready yet,” he said.
Remediation rates at California State University, Sacramento have been high for a long time, Mills said. A few years ago, as many as 64 percent of incoming students were required to take classes to improve their English and math skills.
“That really got our attention,” he said. “When it moved up suddenly, we thought we have to take a different approach.”
The university has an ambitious plan to cut the number of remedial classes in half by fall 2017. “We’d love to eliminate them, but we have to start by reducing them,” Mills said.
School officials plan to accomplish this through the College Ready Initiative – a partnership with school districts, community colleges and education nonprofits. An initial meeting between Nelsen and school district leaders is set for later this month.
The university is hoping to provide curriculum to schools, as well as math and English courses that could be taught at the high school or at the university. CSUS officials are encouraging high schools to promote exams like the SAT and PSAT and Accelerated College Entrance coursework that will help incoming freshmen avoid remediation and even earn college credits, Mills said.
“I think everybody at the same time is coming to the same place, where what we were doing was completely ineffective and there needs to be some intervention,” said Paula Hanzel, executive director of Sacramento Pathways to Success – a partnership already in place between Sacramento City Unified, Sacramento City College and Sacramento State.
Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert