California community colleges urged to plan now for fewer students in remedial courses

August 20, 2018

Santa Monica College

California’s community colleges are being urged to move quickly to overhaul their curriculums so they are ready for the fall of 2019 when drastically fewer students will be required to take remedial classes in English and math.

In a recent memo from the chancellor’s office, the state’s 115 community colleges were encouraged to see the state law’s upcoming deadline “as an urgent call to innovate” as they convert from a system where most students were required to take non-credit remedial courses to one in which most students, even those with low GPAs, will be enrolled in college-level courses for credit.

Some will be assigned to “concurrent support” services such as tutors in the classroom or attending extra study hours. One popular type of support is called the corequisite model, a separate class that students take to reinforce key concepts.

The memo, written by Laura Hope, the executive vice chancellor of the community college system, and John Stanskas, the president of the Academic Senate, which represents the system’s faculty, details for the colleges how they should implement last year’s law, known as AB 705.

What the memo describes are big changes for the community college system. While a 2016 report estimated 80 percent of students were placed in remedial education, “a majority of students will be placed directly into transfer-level courses” under the recommendations from the chancellor’s office.

Citing research data, the memo notes that even students with the lowest levels of high school performance are more likely to successfully complete a transfer level course in one year if they are placed directly into transfer level, rather than being placed even one level below” in a remedial class.

A 2016 study by the Public Policy Institute of California found that just 27 percent of students who are placed in a remedial math course eventually pass a transfer-level course with a C or higher. The same is true for 44 percent of students in remedial English. And these courses take about two semesters to complete.

The new law allows colleges to use high school performance rather than placement tests to evaluate whether students are ready for college-level math or English.

The chancellor’s memo is “really saying remediation as usual is over,” said Katie Hern, an English instructor at Chabot College and co-founder of the California Acceleration Project, an organization established by community college faculty to improve student outcomes in transfer-level courses.

And though Hern said no one college has fully adopted the law, some have begun allowing students to directly enroll in select college-level math or English courses with major improvements to student completion rates. A recent analysis by the Public Policy Institute of California found that students placed in corequisite math and English courses passed at much higher rates than students who had gone first through the remedial sequence.

This past weekend Marjorie Blen and her fellow students at City College of San Francisco entered classrooms where their peers were taking tests to determine if they’ll need remedial math or English to tell them they don’t need to be there.

The students, organized as Students Making a Change, are urging others to enroll instead in college-level courses now rather than wait until next year when the law goes into effect.

“A lot of students are going to be upset,” said Blen, a 30-year-old working mother of two living in San Francisco said.

Blen was allowed to skip remedial math and take college-level statistics instead. She’s signed up to take it in the spring because the evening fall classes were filled up, she said.

Other colleges are showing resistance in favor of remedial classes, Hern said. “I’m working with colleges where they are really looking for loopholes” to continue placing students in remedial courses.

While the memo isn’t enforceable, it mirrors regulations that will be coming out in the winter, Hope said.

The evidence backing the community college system’s overhaul comes from research called the Multiple Measures Assessment Project which compared students who were placed directly in a college- or transfer-level course to students whose placement was determined by a standardized test. The project looked at more than 1 million students’ college and high school records between 2007 and 2014.

It shows that even students with high-school grade point averages below 1.9 completed college-level math and English courses at more than double the rate when placed directly in those courses, some with academic support, compared to students who were placed in courses one level below. (Intermediate algebra, for example, is a common remedial course that’s one level below courses for which students can get transfer credit.)

The research applies to a range of college- or transfer-level math courses, including statistics, math for liberal arts majors and pre-calculus for students pursuing majors in business or in fields that have an emphasis on math and science.

“We have yet to identify a group of students whose” likelihood of completing a transfer-level course “is increased by traditional remediation,” said Terrence Willett, dean of research, planning, and institutional effectiveness at Cabrillo Community College and one of the researchers.

The chancellor’s office memo adopts the Multiple Measures Assessment Project’s suggestions for which students should receive additional support while in their college-level courses:

The guidance applies to students who finished high school in the past decade and have the goal of either transferring to a four-year university or earning a degree or certificate at the community college level. The memo says colleges with large numbers of students who finished high school more than 10 years ago will have to innovate.

The community colleges aren’t alone in transforming their remedial education policies. Last year the 23-campus CSU announced an end to remedial English and math courses that don’t count toward college credit. “All 23 campuses have changed their remedial education coursework and beginning in the fall 2018, students will receive college credit for all the coursework they complete” with a C or C- or higher depending on the campus, said CSU spokesperson Mike Uhlenkamp. Students who need additional support will get it while still enrolled in college-level courses.

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