Ann Reynolds, Chancellor of the City University of New York, took a necessary step when she ordered Hostos Community College in the Bronx to reinstate a writing competency test that the college had sought to de-emphasize because so many students failed it. But the Chancellor and the board of trustees will need to go further still, forcing change on a faculty that is clearly failing to do its job.
Hostos, about 80 percent of whose students speak Spanish, is the only bilingual institution in the City University system. Though deficient in English, the students are often bright, capable adults, some with degrees from other countries. These students typically take English as a Second Language and must then pass a writing test before moving into regular English classes.
The second-language instruction is so poor that a visiting expert recently likened it to pablum. The instructors often rely on outmoded techniques, omitting rigorous instruction in grammar, spelling and writing. In some years, as few as 10 percent pass the writing competency test. The rest repeat second-language courses as many as three or four times — and must pay each time. Hundreds of students need evening and weekend tutorials to learn what they should have been taught during class time.
After student protests, officials tried to de-emphasize the writing tests and rely more on faculty opinions and class work for assessments. Ms. Reynolds said second-language students should not be promoted to regular English courses until they had passed the writing proficiency examination. She must now persuade the faculty to teach students what they need to know. That means a more rigorous curriculum focusing on grammar, usage and writing. It also means that the faculty must understand the damage it has caused.