Position Statement: Mandatory Early Start Programs (April 2009)

7 10 2009

For the Statewide Academic Senate, May 5, 2009:
Here is a position statement on early start programs for entering CSU freshmen recently passed by the CSU English Council as a result of its Spring Meeting in April 2009.  Please consider it.  We intend to also present it to the CSU Board of Trustees at their meeting later this month.  We would like the support of the Senate.

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English Council members who attended the fall 2008 “Proficiency in the First Year” conference were delighted with the system-wide interest in new approaches to placement and curricular design expressed by the CSU leadership.  There seemed to be a genuine recognition that first year students’ reading and writing experiences need to be contextualized in the college experience, that students need the opportunity to enter into the discourses of the university, to understand themselves and the rhetorical practices they bring with them in this new context and an appreciation for the innovative credit-bearing stretch courses that provide these sorts of opportunities for our students.  This is why we were so disheartened to learn of the subsequent developments at the CSU Educational Policy Committee meetings concerning writing proficiency and, more specifically, of the mandatory Early Start program at San Diego State.

In the agenda of the CSU Educational Policy Committee meeting of January 27, 2009, Executive Vice Chancellor Gary Reichard notes that despite all efforts, the number of eligible students who are not “proficient” in math and English at the time of entry into the CSU remains “distressingly high.”  Although he notes that 80% of students become proficient during their first year, he laments the fact that the courses they take to do so are not credit-bearing, retard their momentum toward degree, and deplete the system’s meager resources.  He argues that “the obvious solution is to ensure that all students who are eligible for admission to the CSU are able to demonstrate full proficiency in English and mathematics at time of entry.”  We have also recently learned that in apparent conjunction with this goal, the Early Start program at San Diego State will become mandatory, and that students with an eligibility index below 3400 who are deemed not proficient in English will be required to attend the Early Start program in the summer, or they will not be allowed to enroll in the university.

We are concerned that this mandatory model will become system-wide policy and would like to make the following points about Early Start programs:

  1. Early start programs that offer students reading and writing experiences in ways consistent with scholarship in writing and composition studies and administered by qualified faculty can be of benefit to certain students, e.g. students who are already motivated, have resources that will allow them to attend in summer, who already possess a degree of self-determination, etc.
  2. As a mandatory “solution” to the “problem” of first-year courses, early start programs will deny access to many students deemed eligible for the CSU by the Master Plan by setting up yet another exclusionary barrier for students who can’t pay for these courses in summer, students who need to work in summer, students who don’t have housing during summer, lack of financial aid, etc.
  3. Mandatory early start programs based on EPT score constitute an indefensible use of the EPT, which was designed to place students into the most appropriate CSU writing course, not as an admissions test.

For these reasons, English Council objects to mandatory Early Start programs that deny eligible students a place at CSU merely because of a score on a placement test and the fact that they are unable, for one reason or another, to attend a summer program.  While we believe that Early Start options can benefit some students, we believe that other measures, such as Directed Self Placement and credit-bearing stretch courses, are preferable for the vast majority.  We encourage the Chancellor’s Office to abandon simplistic notions of proficiency determined by a score on a single test, as well as the obsession with where and when students receive particular types of educational experiences.   At the “Proficiency in the First Year” conference we felt that we had made progress in this direction.  We strongly urge the Chancellor’s Office to continue the open-minded and flexible attitude made evident at the conference.  After all, as Gary Reichard stated so clearly, “These are our students.”

Jonathan L. Price
President, CSU English Council

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