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Study: California State University remedial program not living up to promise

CSU Dominguez Hills staged four ceremonies on Friday to accommodate its 3,500 graduates along with their friends and family.
Adolfo Guzman-Lopez/KPCC
Graduation at CSU Dominguez Hills.

In 2012 the 23 campuses of the California State University began requiring incoming freshmen who’d tested below college level in math and English to take a summer class. The program is called Early Start. In the summer of 2016 nearly 25,000 students across the university system took the remedial classes.

A new study looking at whether Early Start improved students’ grades and likelihood to graduate has bad news.

“We found that it has not actually resulted in significant improvements in performance or persistence of students who were identified in need of remediation,” said UC Davis education researcher Michal Kurlaender. “It’s not led to the kind of promise it was held up to be."

She examined student grade point averages and completion of courses among students in the three years before and the three years after CSU rolled out Early Start. She said the changes in students grades and completion of academic classes in the first and second year was not statistically significant.

The results of the Early Start study come as the California State University is changing policies and devoting more funds to programs and policies that will increase the number of students who reach graduation day and reduce the number years it takes them to earn that degree.

CSU spends about $8 million annually to pay for the Early Start classes that students take and the program has other costs.

Despite the study’s results, the California State University stands by the Early Start program.

“Our intent is to strengthen the program not to get rid of it,” said James Minor, Senior Strategist for Academic Success and Inclusive Excellence at the CSU Chancellor’s Office.

He doesn’t challenge the findings. Some CSU campuses, he said, are showing better results trying to improve student skills over the summer than others.

“We believe that all of the campuses are following the policy and the requirement that is in place. That said, some campuses have decided to do more than the minimum requirement,” like CSU San Bernardino, he said, which funds additional support for students deemed needing remedial education.

For several years CSU campuses have done more to work with the high schools around each campus to explain to math and English teachers the kind of knowledge their students will need to succeed at the Cal State. Kurlaender said those collaborations may prove more fruitful to help students than the Early Start summer classes.

“That will not solve all of the problems, we have a lot of inequality in our K-12 system and they will still continue to have students enter who are in need of some developmental coursework,” Kurlaender said.