California colleges transform remedial courses to raise graduation rates

June 20, 2017

Cal State Dominguez Hills instructor Cassondra Lochard leads a college algebra class that includes remedial material.

Before Aida Tseggai could major in biology at Cal State Dominguez Hills, she had to catch up in math.

She passed a non-credit remedial math class in the fall and then was offered a new pathway – a for-credit course in college-level algebra that provided extra class time, tutoring and review of more fundamental material.

Such combination classes – known as corequisites, bridges or hybrids – are seen as a crucial tool to help hundreds of thousands of CSU students climb out of the remedial education hole in which some feel trapped. Part of a national reform movement, such courses also are aimed at helping students graduate faster.

“It saved me time and money,” said Tseggai.

Nervous at first about the spring corequisite class, she wound up passing with a C grade. The combination of catch-up work and college level material, she said, was “very helpful. Like killing two birds with one stone.” Without that opportunity, her initial placement test results would have required her to take yet another non-credit remedial course.

CSU system administrators earlier this year said they want to turn all non-credit remedial classes into college-level credit bearing ones by 2018, with the corequisite classes as the likely model. That move is an important part of the CSU campaign to bolster the system wide four-year completion rate for first-time freshmen to 40 percent from the current 19 percent by 2025. More than a third of entering CSU freshmen are found to need some remedial work.

Cal State Dominguez Hills, located in suburban Carson southwest of downtown Los Angeles, serves a student body of 15,000, 75 percent of whom are Latino or black. Many are from low-income families, are first in their families to attend college and juggle school with jobs.

The campus has been a pioneer in moving toward the corequisite model in both English and math. Most remedial students still must participate in a no-credit Early Start summer program that bolsters their academic skill. But over the past few years, the campus has been replacing the next levels of remedial math with credit-bearing corequisites.

Results have been encouraging, officials say. However, as the spring algebra class showed, some students continue to fail.

Of the 960 incoming Dominguez Hills freshman placed in the remedial math track last summer, about 80 percent completed their remedial work and a corequisite credit course in algebra or statistics in their first year. That compares to about 64 percent who finished remedial courses under the prior system without receiving credits, campus statistics show. Many who failed a corequisite algebra or statistics class last fall retook it and passed in the spring, meeting a deadline to do so.

“It has definitely worked well for us. This is a lot better than where we were at before,” said math department chairman Matthew Jones.

Timing and tutoring are among the biggest differences between a bridge class and a traditional one.

For example, a traditional for-credit college algebra class usually meets three times a week for 50 minutes. In contrast, the corequisite Tseggai attended met for an hour and ten minutes three times a week for instructor Cassondra Lochard’s lectures; in addition, students had an extra group hour weekly with a teaching assistant plus one-on-one tutoring.  In contrast to regular classroom protocol, the teaching assistant circulated among the desks during lectures, softly giving advice and reviewing students’ calculations and algebra formulations.

Remedial students need the extra time, help and structure of a corequisite class since many “lack the foundation” in algebra even if they received decent grades in it in high school, according to Lochard. Many students either forgot basics or did not pay attention in high school and feel the ideas “are brand new to them.” And if they do recall some concepts, “they mix them up in strange ways,” said Lochard, who is the campus coordinator for developmental, or remedial, math.

Just as important, she said, are work ethic and ability to complete assignments on deadline. Some freshmen have not yet mastered the demands and pace of college compared to high school’s more forgiving nature. “I think it’s more of a mentality change for them than an inability to acquire the skills,” she said.

While an increasing number of CSU campuses and California community colleges are starting or exploring corequisite classes in math and English, several other states such as Tennessee, Indiana and Colorado have moved faster, experts say. Wider adoption across the country is likely over the next few years as state legislatures try to reduce spending on remediation and public colleges seek better graduation rates, said Chris Thorn, director of knowledge management at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching which is located in Stanford, Calif.  “It is the writing on the wall,” he said of the spread of such bridge courses.

Early evidence shows those classes help more students complete remedial paths. But it is not clear yet how those students perform in subsequent math or science courses and whether graduation rates are improved, added Thorn, who has helped Carnegie develop its own alternative college math courses to speed remedial education. And, he added, corequisites probably won’t help everyone: “It’s not a panacea.”

CSU students feel the pressure: they could be forced to leave the university if they don’t complete required remedial work within a year, including the chance to retake a class at a CSU or community college during summer if need be. Across the 23-campus CSU system, 13 percent of students in remedial courses were not allowed to return for a second year in 2016 because of such failures, according to a system report. Many others say they feel they wasted a year of time and a lot of money.

Two math tracks are available at Cal State Dominguez Hills. Students in the humanities, social sciences, and arts usually take statistics – and passing that class often fulfills their sole general education requirement in math. College algebra is the route for science, engineering and math students who likely need additional math classes such as pre-calculus.

In both tracks, corequisite classes review more basic topics and push forward into new, college level material. Jones insists that the classes are not watered down and that the material and pass rates are similar to traditional algebra and statistics classes.

Lochard’s spring semester class had the ungainly name of “College Algebra with Intermediate Algebra Review.” She spent much time writing equations on the board, walking students through solutions and egging them on to discoveries in polynomials, quadratic equations, radicals and factoring. Besides a textbook, she assigned work from online platforms and her own supplemental material to keep the students “cycling” from review subjects to higher level work.

The course seems to have improved passing rates in subsequent math requirements for students majoring in science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM courses, she said.

Her teaching assistant Muhammad Albayati, a sophomore, helped the algebra students too. A math and computer whiz who emigrated with his family from Iraq when he was 10 years old, Albayati was a supportive peer. While Lochard lectured or assigned exercises, students at times called out for “Muhammad” and he crouched over their work sheets and gave advice. He led a weekly study group without Lochard.

Cal State Dominguez Hills student Raquel Herrera

The students’ skills varied widely, but most need some emotional boosting to build their confidence, Albayati said. He and other peer tutors “provide understanding and acceptance. We show them we accept them for where they are.” He said corequisite courses like this “give those borderline students the resources to pass the class….and a lot respond and will do whatever it takes to get through it.”

Still, some skip required study sessions and don’t turn in homework, he noted. Some “still have a high school mentality” and think they can “mess around and pass the class and that’s not the case in the university. The material is a lot harder and the professor does not have to take care of a student the way a high school teacher does,” said Albayati, who is transferring in the fall to UC Irvine to study video game design.

Many students in Lochard’s recent spring semester class were repeaters: they had failed a similar class in the fall and needed at least a C minus to pass. After some early drop-outs, 60 percent of those who remained passed. The record was better in the fall, when nearly 80 percent passed the corequisite college algebra first time out and the rate was even higher for the statistics courses.

Raquel Herrera, a Dominguez Hills freshman, failed the spring class. She complained the course went by too fast yet also blamed herself for not completing some homework.

Facing a possible forced withdrawal from the university, she might have taken algebra in summer school. But she instead appealed, was found to have a learning disability and was given the chance to take a substitute course, likely in statistics, in the fall with more assistance.

Still, she said she resents the placement system that tested her without allowing calculators on forgotten material from high school. She remains “really annoyed” that her college education might have been ruined by one math course. “It’s not fair because I worked really hard to get where I am,” said Herrera, who is switching her major from biochemistry to liberal studies, with a goal of becoming a teacher.

In contrast, Aida Tseggai appreciates how Lochard and Albayati helped her and is proud she improved her grade as the semester went on. While she originally resented being placed in remedial math, she said she now views the system as “fair” and knows she received solid preparation for pre-calculus next spring.

“Mixing together remedial and regular algebra helped us get ahead,” she said.

To get more reports like this one, click here to sign up for EdSource’s no-cost daily email on latest developments in education.

Share Article

Exit mobile version