CSU to overhaul remedial education, replace no-credit with credit-bearing classes

March 21, 2017

Students at Cal State Long Beach could be affected by changes in the Master Plan.

The California State University system plans to overhaul its remedial education system by 2018, scrapping no-credit courses in English and math and replacing them with credit classes that include extra tutoring and built-in study sessions.

Too many students are placed by testing or high school grades into noncredit classes that aim to prepare them for college-level work. But that strategy often backfires by making them feel unwelcome on campus and that they are wasting time and tuition money, officials told a Long Beach meeting of the CSU trustees Tuesday. A switch to specially-designed credit courses will create a sense of progress toward graduation, reduce attrition and expose students right away to a higher level of academic work, administrators behind the plan explained.

For many students, being placed into noncredit remedial courses “represents strike one before they ever set foot on any of our campuses,” Loren J. Blanchard, CSU executive vice chancellor for Academic and Student Affairs, told the trustees Tuesday. “It represents a deficit model that must be reformed if we really hope to achieve our equity and completion goals.”

The change could affect tens of thousands of incoming freshmen each year. For example, about 38 percent of last fall’s 61,757 CSU freshmen were found to need remediation in either English or math, and 14 percent in both subjects, university statistics show. About 59 percent of African-American freshmen and 47 percent of Latinos need some extra preparation, significantly more than whites and Asians.

Depending on their placement, those students now might be required to take as many as three noncredit classes in a subject just to get up to college-level courses and a significant portion of them – 13 percent in recent years – do not return to school for a second year; many others say they feel they wasted a year of time and a lot of money.

“We have every reason to believe this will be a game changer for CSU and the students we serve,” James T. Minor, who is senior CSU strategist for Academic Success and Inclusive Excellence, said in an interview before the meeting.  The current system of placing underprepared students in purely remedial or developmental classes that do not count toward their degree “is not a particularly  good model for retention and degree completion,” he said.

Some of the 23 CSU campuses already offer students who need remediation the redesigned English and math classes, often known as corequisite or stretch classes. In those courses, they usually are assigned extra work and must attend class for an additional hour or two a week compared with a traditional credit course. But as a systemwide policy, it would be a major change. Many details of curriculum and scheduling remain to be worked out campus by campus and at department levels, and in some cases may involve enrichment sessions offered during summer and winter sessions, they said.

The new approach to remedial, or developmental, education would fit into both a national and California trend. Several other states, such as Tennessee, reported success in putting students in so-called corequisite courses starting in 2015. The City University of New York is taking similar steps by 2018 and also is starting to allow math requirements to be fulfilled by statistics or quantitative reasoning classes, not just by algebra.

This new policy also dovetails with the CSU Graduation Initiative, which seeks by 2025 to improve the systemwide four-year completion rate for first-time freshmen to 40 percent from the current 19 percent, and the six-year rate to 70 percent from the current 57 percent.

California community colleges – where 80 percent of new students are required to take a remedial course – are also focusing on new and better placement of students into college-level work, with less reliance on tests alone and more weight given to high school grades.  

Jeff Gold, CSU’s assistant vice chancellor for Student Success Strategic Initiatives, Research and Innovation, emphasized that the academic rigor will not be reduced. “We are not asking campuses to change the quality of what they are doing. We are not asking them to waive students through. We are not asking students not to work hard for this,” Gold said. Instead, the new program will offer extra help and services to students who need it and, he said, the message to students will be: “You will be moving toward your degree right away and, by the way, you belong here.”

The change will be accompanied by reforms in testing and placement, he said. CSU now relies on the Smarter Balanced test students take in the 11th grade, high school grades, and the results of the ACT or SAT, plus a university placement test. Gold said CSU will be “taking a hard look at which we can do without.”

The new policy was presented as an informational item at the trustees meeting. Officials said it did not require a vote since it is considered an administrative change within the decision realm of system Chancellor Timothy P. White. Still, the matter was cleared in advance with key trustees, faculty leaders and other stakeholders.

Trustees Chairwoman Rebecca D. Eisen said Tuesday she was “just thrilled” to hear the report about remedial courses. She said students feel trapped in what she described as “the Bermuda Triangle of Remediation” and think that the university “is not the place for them.” But the change, she said, will help more students “feel this is something they can do.”

Michele Siqueiros, president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, an organization that works to improve access to higher education, said in an interview that she welcomed the CSU change. “We think reform in remedial education is overdue,” she said. Siqueiros said she expects the new policy will help CSU improve its graduation rates, especially for minority and low-income students. While many details will need to be worked on, especially on placement with less emphasis on testing, she said that evidence at community colleges and schools in other states suggests “this is good policy for students.”

At Cal State Dominguez Hills, the mathematics department already switched most of its developmental courses to corequisite classes in statistics and algebra that bear college credit but require an extra hour a week for tutoring and review of material, according to math Chairman Matthew Jones. A student who places two levels below college-level work still is urged to take a summer “Early Start” program that brings no credit; but if they complete that, they then can skip the next step on the ladder and go directly into a corequisite class, he explained.

The pass rates for the corequisite courses are about the same as those for traditional math courses and overall, Jones said, the change seems to be working well in moving students toward their degrees faster. While courses are redesigned to accommodate the extra material, Jones said the same college-level material is covered as in a traditional credit course. He said moving students more quickly into credit classes reduces their chances of dropping out because of issues in their personal lives or with their education: “The longer the path, the more chances there are for a student to get tripped up.”

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