Cal State to help students graduate by overcoming hurdles of remedial classes

August 3, 2017

With an eye to increasing graduation rates, the California State University is adopting far-reaching strategies to help students overcome obstacles posed by remedial classes in math and English.

The changes stem from new policies announced Wednesday by California State University Chancellor Timothy White and tackle several aspects of remedial education for freshmen that advocates have been championing for years.

The strategies outlined by White emerge from concerns that students in remedial classes take far too long to reach their academic goals — and in many cases never do so because they have to take sequences of remedial courses before they can take college-level courses for credit. Many get discouraged and drop out before graduation.

By the end of this month, CSU will drop math and English placement tests the system has been using for years and for the first time rely on multiple measures such as a student’s high school grade-point average, grades earned in math and English, and test scores on standardized tests like the SAT, ACT or Smarter Balanced assessments to determine whether incoming freshmen are placed in courses that include remedial work.

Terminating use of the placement test with multiple measures emerged out of concerns that the placement tests don’t accurately predict whether a student is ready for college level work or not.

In fall 2018, CSU will also launch a new approach to teaching students who need extra academic help. Starting next fall, those students will enroll in credit-bearing classes while simultaneously receiving additional remedial support — a move aimed at allowing students to more quickly catch up on key math and English skills and avoid spending money and time on courses that don’t count toward their degrees.

The “supportive course models,” as CSU is calling them, could include additional instruction, stretching one-semester courses over two terms, or “co-requisite classes” that pair remedial work with college-level content.

Another change coming in the summer of 2019 is to the Early Start Program, a summer remediation program for incoming freshmen. Courses taught in this program will also become credit-bearing and be paired with additional academic supports.

Right now students accepted to a CSU campus who don’t score high enough on one of several tests they take in high school, such as the SAT, ACT or Smarter Balanced tests, or who don’t pass CSU’s placement tests, are then asked to enroll in summer remedial classes. If students don’t pass those courses, they then have to enroll in non-credit-bearing remedial courses before they can begin taking college-level courses that do count toward their degrees. While CSU takes into account high school course grades for admission, these aren’t factored into whether students are placed in remedial courses. The new policies will change that.

James Minor, CSU’s senior strategist for “academic success and inclusive excellence,” said the new set of rules are not a case of “dumbing down” the university’s academic standards. Instead, the rules will “maintain the same standards, same academic rigor, if not increase it,” he said, as more students will take college-level courses instead of languishing in remedial classes.

He added that the changes are a way to “more effectively [serve] the students” and “not inadvertently [send] the message that they don’t belong in college.”

The new rules will affect tens of thousands of students. Last fall 28 percent of CSU freshmen were placed in remedial math during the regular school year. CSU placed roughly 23 percent of freshmen in remedial English.

Some changes under Executive Order 1110 issued by Chancellor White still require additional detail. For example, CSU workgroups and faculty will need to determine just how much weight is applied to high school grades for determining whether students are placed in classes with remedial work. Students who will be coming this fall have already taken tests and been placed in remedial courses, a CSU spokesperson said.

CSU has typically disenrolled students who were unable to complete their remedial coursework after their first school year. Between fall 2015 and fall 2016, 39 percent of freshmen required remedial coursework; of those, 13 percent didn’t pass their remedial coursework within their first year and lost their enrollment status, CSU data show. An additional 4 percent who didn’t pass their remedial classes were nonetheless allowed to enroll the following year.

These CSU reforms are also part of a national trend. States such as Tennessee reported success in having students enroll in “co-requisite” courses starting in 2015. The City University of New York is taking similar steps by 2018.

The policy announcement “aims to address inequities in college readiness head-on in order to close gaps in degree attainment and afford all students the opportunity to succeed,” read a letter sent to CSU campus presidents this week from Loren J. Blanchard, CSU’s vice chancellor for academic and student affairs.

The changes to remedial education may also help the system meet its goals of improving its six-year graduation rates from 57 percent to 70 percent, and its four-year graduation rates from 19 percent to 40 percent, by 2025.

Katherine Stevenson, a math professor at Cal State Northridge who co-chaired an influential task force on proposed changes to how CSU teaches mathematics, said in an interview she’s concerned about Executive Order 1110’s timeline for creating the new credit-bearing courses for students in need of remediation. She spent several years helping to develop a “stretch course” — one of the curricular models the new policies tout — at CSU Northridge. Colleges new to the concept, in which one-semester college math courses are stretched out over two semesters and packed with remedial components, may have a hard time coming up with the new model in a year, she said.

She’s also worried that the executive order doesn’t permit universities to provide adequate remedial support for students who’ll have to take courses that have both college-level and remedial components. The executive order says the “supportive course models” will have at most one unit, which typically means one hour a week of instruction, Stevenson explained. She’s worried that one hour of help per week will not be enough time.

“Many students enter CSU struggling with an understanding of arithmetic, and bringing such a student who’s interested in, for example biology, to the level of college algebra will be very challenging with only that one-unit support course,” Stevenson said.

Still, “every crisis is an opportunity,” Stevenson said. She’s hopeful that the changes in the long run will improve student success rather than “hampering them” or “funneling them away from algebra-intensive areas like STEM and business.”

CSU officials in March discussed the system’s approaches to remediation and ways to change them. These changes are related to, but different from, policy overhauls CSU announced earlier this week about removing certain intermediate algebra requirements for transfer students and freshmen.

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