The Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles, Calif.; Nov 30, 1997; Author: SHIRLEY SVORNY 

VALLEY PERSPECTIVE; CSU System Needs to Implement Higher Standards for Admission; The current policy allows ill-prepared students access to college-level training, an approach that is politically correct but morally bankrupt. 

So your son just graduated from high school and you are sending him off to Cal State Northridge. But there is something you don't know. I know it because I teach at CSUN. There is a chance that, despite your child's high school diploma, he does not know how to learn.

We all know that the education system in the state is failing droves of students. The current Cal State University admission policy, which allows ill-prepared students access to college-level training, obscures the fact that these young people are graduating from high school unprepared. This approach may be politically correct but it is morally bankrupt. Kids who lack basic skills, but are admitted to the CSU system, are on a path to failure. It is time for CSU to take a stand. At some point, we have to insist on a basic level of competency before we permit students to take the next step.

My colleagues teaching entry-level students in economics are all shaking their heads. Never have they seen such a weak cohort of students. Not only do many of them fail to attend class, but they don't turn to faculty for help. We all have office hours, times when students can come to ask for help. Only the best students take advantage of this. Others show up when it is too late, when they have already failed, but want to know if there is some way out.

Even by their junior year, many of the students in my classes have no clue as to how to understand material presented in a graph or how to learn a concept. This semester I am teaching three sections of intermediate microeconomics. This is a junior-level class. Yet more than 50% of my students are on their way to earning Ds or Fs. How is this possible at this level? They have homework assignments aimed at getting them to read the material. They have copies of my old exams, with questions that are similar to those they will be asked. My lectures parallel the material in the text. I even tell my students that they will be required to reproduce one or two specific diagrams on the test. How can they not be prepared for my exam? My daughter, who is 8, was talking to me when I was grading. She wants to know how someone can get a six out of 100 possible points.

Don't think this doesn't affect you, even if you don't have a child enrolled in the CSU system. It is a colossal waste of tax dollars in the name of "education." I am concerned that the reason CSU is unwilling to point out the truth about these incoming students is that we fear losing state funding and faculty positions.

Even my own department is guilty, afraid that if we enforce prerequisites, we will see our enrollments drop drastically and our funding fall with it. Despite the widespread support in my department for higher standards, we agree to wait to enforce prerequisites until everyone else
does; why stick our neck out and be the only department to lose enrollment? That such a moral, responsible action would be met with budgetary punishment says a lot about the incentives in the CSU system.

To deal with the problem, I propose that we limit CSU enrollment systemwide to students who have passed basic, entry-level exams in mathematics and English. Those who teach developmental courses (review courses) claim to be able to take unprepared students and get them up to speed in a one-semester course. But something is wrong with this story; too many unprepared students are slipping into my classes.

Purposely or not, the current system hides the inadequacies of our local high schools. If we are fair in our admissions process, the high schools will be rightly judged as sending out students who are unprepared to learn. If we are fair in our admissions policy, parents will be irate, and they will demand that their local high schools be accountable for preparing their kids for college and for the world. It is time that our admissions policy quit fooling parents into thinking their children are prepared for college when they are not.

Credit: Shirley Svorny is a professor of economics at Cal State Northridge