A new way of determining students’ readiness for college courses could be the missing link that will allow the much heralded Long Beach College Promise to fulfill its promise.
The College Promise, which celebrated its fifth birthday with the release of a report last week, is a model of cooperation between a K-12 district – Long Beach Unified – and the public colleges it feeds: Long Beach City College and California State University, Long Beach. The College Promise asks students and their parents to sign a pledge to stay on track for college and to take courses required for admission.
So far, 57,000 students in the district have signed it. In return, education institutions, the Long Beach Community College Foundation and the business community in Long Beach promised to provide the families with a guaranteed admission to CSU Long Beach for those who qualify, or, as an alternative, a fee-free first semester at Long Beach City College and increased access to college-preparatory courses in high school.
The colleges have kept their word. Four thousand students have gotten a free semester at Long Beach City College since the program started, and admission to CSU Long Beach increased 34 percent, from 1,105 students in 2008 to 1,483 in 2012, even though state funding cuts forced the university to cut enrollment by 2,000 students two years straight. Long Beach Unified expanded its offerings of courses required for admission to a four-year college, known as A-G courses.
But despite notable success in expanding access and inducements to pursue higher education, the College Promise has not yet resulted in substantially higher achievement, as measured by the percentage of students receiving associate degrees, vocational certificates, enough community college credits to transfer and bachelor’s degrees. The important six-year cohort graduation rate – the key measurement – is not yet in, though there was a slight uptick in a disappointing four-year graduation rate at CSU Long Beach. For Long Beach Unified students, the graduation rate increased from 9 percent to 11 percent.
The persistence rate – the percentage of students who remain enrolled a year after they start – has been significantly higher for Long Beach Unified graduates than for graduates of other districts: 69 percent compared with 43 percent two years ago. That’s a good sign. But flat rates of achievement – successfully attaining a degree, certificate or transfer credits – prompted new thinking that could make a big difference.
Last fall, the district and community college launched a pilot program, Promise Pathways, that places freshmen in college math and English classes based on their on grades in high school,
instead of on their scores on a standardized placement test that Long Beach City College requires of all new students.
The immediate impact was impressive: The percentage of Long Beach Unified freshmen who were placed in a college English course instead of a remedial course quadrupled in the fall of 2012, from 14 to 56 percent, and the number of students who then passed that course quintupled, from about 70 students to 350. In math, the numbers were notable, too. Placement in college math, not a remedial class, tripled from 9 to 31 percent, and the pass rate doubled, from slightly under 50 to slightly more than 100, according to information from the college and the 5-year report.
“Grades in high school proved to be a better predictor of success than standardized tests,” said Mark Taylor, director of College Advancement, Public Affairs, and Governmental Relations for Long Beach City College. Research showed a “gross misplacement” of students in remediation courses who probably didn’t need to be there, he added.
Under the pilot program, students who got an A or B in their senior English course were automatically placed in a college class at the city college. Students with a lower grade were required take the placement test, Taylor said. For math, it was a combination of factors: the average grade point average for math in high school, the last math class completed and the results on the California Standards Tests.
Taylor said that the right placement saved Long Beach Unified students from taking an average of five semesters of remediation courses in English and math. This, in turn, should lead to a higher percentage of students completing an associate degree and transferring to a four-year university, since the frustration, time and expense of taking remediation courses is a major reason why the majority of students who intend to complete an associate degree or certificate program fall by the wayside.
“Overall, I think this work is incredibly promising — this is something that is worth replicating and studying. If something that simple and cost-effective can move the needle for students to be able to move quickly into and through community college, that would be wonderful,” Andrea Venezia, associate professor of Public Policy and Administration and the associate director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at California State University, Sacramento, wrote in an email. “We know that having to take multiple developmental education courses (remediation) is demoralizing and is usually not helpful in terms of student learning.”
But Venezia said that it will be important to track the students through graduation or the end of their studies “to see if those students got a momentary bump, but couldn’t make it through after that, or if they succeeded at greater rates.” And she cautioned that there is a great variation in quality among senior-year English courses and a concern about grade inflation – “especially if the stakes are raised.”
Other community colleges, however, may not be quick to abandon placement tests, although there is momentum systemwide at least to standardize them. Long Beach Unified provides the largest source of students to Long Beach City College, and is a primary feeder for CSU Long Beach. For years, the faculty from all three institutions have worked together to align expectations, according to Taylor. CSU Long Beach also provides most new teachers for Long Beach Unified, the third-largest district in the state with 74,000 students. Long Beach City College can reasonably assume that students with good grades in the district are ready for college work – even though it has taken until now to act on that trust.
Most community colleges draw from many school districts, don’t automatically get access to students’ high school transcripts, and lack the staff to evaluate individual students’ records, Taylor said. Nonetheless, Long Beach City College plans to extend the pilot this fall to students from three other nearby districts: Paramount, Los Alamitos and Downy Unified.
Rick Gloady, director of the Office of Media Relations at CSU Long Beach, said that the rates of Long Beach Unified students needing remediation also have fallen significantly in the past four years from 60 percent in fall 2009 to 42 percent in fall 2012; the remediation rates for English courses also was halved, to 13 percent. The progress reflects more effective high school advising and the impact of CSU Early Start, a statewide initiative requiring students to take catch-up courses in the summer after high school graduation. And Long Beach Unified and CSU Long Beach are hoping that fewer non-credit remediation courses will pay off in more students with degrees; they’ll know more in the next few years.