Credit: Pasadena Community College

As a Pasadena City College math professor, I spent 15 years teaching remedial math. I am deeply committed to the community college mission, and I want to help students who are the least prepared and the least confident to succeed in math.

But Assembly Bill 705 changed my understanding of what it means to help students succeed. This law required California community colleges to show that remedial courses improved students’ chances of completing math and English requirements for a bachelor’s degree; otherwise, colleges could not force students into remediation.

I believed that remedial math was what students needed, but I was wrong. Remedial courses did not make students more successful. In fact, extensive research shows that enrolling in even one remedial class makes students much less likely to complete math requirements for a bachelor’s degree.

In fall 2019, the start of mandatory AB 705 implementation, Pasadena City College was one of only two colleges that followed the research and eliminated remedial courses. All our students taking math or English began in transfer-level courses that earned them credit toward California State University and University of California baccalaureate degrees as well as our local associate degrees. These changes produced dividends for our students.

That year, 59% of first-time math students completed transfer-level coursework in one year, compared to 32% in 2015-16. Every student group we examined achieved unprecedented math completion gains, including Black and Hispanic students, disabled students, students with low high-school GPAs, low-income students, older students, veterans and foster youth.

Contrary to the fears expressed by opponents of the law, the shift away from remedial courses did not erode our broad mission as a community college. We continued to offer our full range of certificate and associate degree programs and found that AB 705 reforms were associated with better outcomes, not only for students who intended to transfer to a university, but also for students who did not. In 2020-2021, we awarded 2,197 more associate degrees and certificates to students in non-transferable programs than we did in 2015-16.

This is not surprising to me as a math professor because I know that transfer-level does not mean harder. Pasadena Community College students in career education, which prepares students to enter the workforce without a baccalaureate, now take a transfer-level course in statistics or quantitative reasoning, and these courses have higher pass rates than the remedial algebra courses we forced them to take previously.

AB 705 requires colleges to place students into coursework that maximizes their probability of completing transfer-level math and English within a year of enrolling in the discipline. Across colleges, the results were the same: When students started in remedial courses, whether by choice or requirement, they were less likely to complete transfer requirements when compared with similar students who bypassed remediation and began directly in transfer-level courses.

But many colleges did not follow the research. In fall 2020, 55 colleges continued to enroll at least 20% of their students into remedial math courses.

These colleges claimed that the law did not prohibit students from choosing to enroll in remedial courses. I am saddened when I hear anyone resort to the “student choice” argument, because it blames students for their lack of progress toward a degree when in fact the college has continued to knowingly offer options that hinder their progress.

This interpretation of the law has undermined its intent. In response, Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, has authored AB 1705 to address issues impeding efforts to shift community colleges away from remedial courses.

Students do not need remedial classes, despite what they may believe or are told. If students want or need additional support, research shows that concurrent support, such as embedded tutoring or low unit corequisite courses like we have at Pasadena City College, produce better and more equitable outcomes than remediation.

AB 1705 makes it clear that students who have graduated from a U.S. high school should start in transfer-level courses in math and English at the community college, and it also states that colleges shall provide students access to concurrent support.

State leaders are poised to approve $64 million for community colleges to broaden their menu of supports for students enrolled in transfer-level coursework, and AB 1705 stipulates that we need to show that these supports improve student success.

In the words of Maya Angelou, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”

Before AB 705, community colleges did the best we knew how. AB 1705 is how community colleges will do better for our students by building on the knowledge gained from the historic reforms of AB 705.

•••

Linda Hintzman is an assistant professor of mathematics and an academic support coordinator at Pasadena City College.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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

Comments (12)

Leave a Reply to Ann

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * *

Comments Policy

We welcome your comments. All comments are moderated for civility, relevance and other considerations. Click here for EdSource's Comments Policy.

  1. Angel 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    I suggest you show this article to the Mathematics Division Department at Pasadena Community College. Show your research and go through list of classes where students failed the most and you will notice a pattern: it's Math Class. I've seen the list of most failed class and it's Math. If a student failed math class, twice their chances of retaking the class, getting a tutor, and aiming to pass that class again is really … Read More

    I suggest you show this article to the Mathematics Division Department at Pasadena Community College. Show your research and go through list of classes where students failed the most and you will notice a pattern: it’s Math Class.

    I’ve seen the list of most failed class and it’s Math. If a student failed math class, twice their chances of retaking the class, getting a tutor, and aiming to pass that class again is really slim.

    I’m in the Legal Field studies at PCC passed all of my legal classes, but i need general education such as repeat Intermediate Algebra class, biology, history, and health so I can get an Associate Degree. I’m the student that even failed Math class in High school. I failed Intermediate Algebra class twice back at another college I attended. As a math professor you will even notice how math is a subject students fail a lot.

    Please, make a change, do something. I’d love to get an Associate Degree without worry of failing a math class. Why can’t students just take another class not another math class – another class either general education class or a class meant for their major instead of math class.

    You wrote this article for a reason. All I ask is that you decide to share this with Math Division Department and administration at PCC. I’m sure if there was a petition on change.org, so many students who want math gone will sign it.

  2. Angela 1 month ago1 month ago

    As a Pasadena City College student I think taking math classes reduces chances that a student will get their degree and graduate. Before I transferred to PCC I took Intermediate Algebra twice and failed, but my other classes I was passing them. Now, in order for me to get Associate Degree, I need to take some general education classes like political science, health, history, but I will need to take Intermediate Algebra again. If I … Read More

    As a Pasadena City College student I think taking math classes reduces chances that a student will get their degree and graduate. Before I transferred to PCC I took Intermediate Algebra twice and failed, but my other classes I was passing them. Now, in order for me to get Associate Degree, I need to take some general education classes like political science, health, history, but I will need to take Intermediate Algebra again.

    If I fail that class, would I get my Associate Degree even though I get good grades for my other classes? I have no clue, but I wished colleges would do more studies and notice the amount of students that fail math class, how it makes it harder to get a degree, and to take math classes off the general requirement.

  3. Kyle Jonathan Chang 2 months ago2 months ago

    Remedial education is a waste of time, money, energy, and resources in College!

  4. David 3 months ago3 months ago

    Logically, you would THINK that remedial courses would be appropriate for students who were deficient in remedial-level skills, but it's not. The missing part of this issue is what most students learn in most math courses today. If they learned the actual content of the subject matter, then giving them remedial courses would be prudent. But the unfortunate fact is that what they learn are "rules" and "algorithms" for producing the correct answer … Read More

    Logically, you would THINK that remedial courses would be appropriate for students who were deficient in remedial-level skills, but it’s not. The missing part of this issue is what most students learn in most math courses today. If they learned the actual content of the subject matter, then giving them remedial courses would be prudent. But the unfortunate fact is that what they learn are “rules” and “algorithms” for producing the correct answer to test questions. T

    his is an American standard that is ingrained into our textbooks. Students are taught how to replicate the “examples.” It’s not the sort of knowledge that can serve as a foundation for more advanced work. We have taught math this way for decades because it’s the only method that works for large numbers of students.

    There are rebellions against this approach from time to time – Common Core Math being the most recent – but we always go back to what works. I was an adult school math teacher for 20 years, and it took me at least 10 years to see this. Remedial math courses waste students’ time because the instruction they receive in these courses is geared toward passing tests rather than acquiring genuine understanding. So it’s no surprise that leaving those courses out of the loop doesn’t change things much.

  5. Ann 3 months ago3 months ago

    As usual the comments here show California has the wrong people in Sacramento. Here is a ‘real world’ take. I am tasked with hiring young persons for various positions that require at the least knowledge of basic math and writing skills. Way too commonly, HS, CC and even University grads are severely lacking. Zeev has it right again.

  6. Robert M 3 months ago3 months ago

    Kids who did not meet the standards in high school should not be enrolled in college. The reason most do not finish college is they are not students or individuals that value learning. In the harshest sense, many of these kids were too lazy; when confronted, they quit. And now we simply let them still graduate without high school level skills. A college degree is not what it used to be.

  7. Victor picena 3 months ago3 months ago

    I beg to differ. In taking remedial courses, it greatly helps to build a foundation to learn basic principles and proper application of grammar, etc. I am still till this day without those courses and don't think it would be possible to learn how to read and develop the writing skills to be an exceptional author of film scripts. I believe academia at the college and university level is an ideal undertaking and more so … Read More

    I beg to differ. In taking remedial courses, it greatly helps to build a foundation to learn basic principles and proper application of grammar, etc. I am still till this day without those courses and don’t think it would be possible to learn how to read and develop the writing skills to be an exceptional author of film scripts. I believe academia at the college and university level is an ideal undertaking and more so now to tackle the amount senseless violence.

  8. Steve 3 months ago3 months ago

    I recently retired after teaching for 38 years in a So Cal public high school. During the last few years, teachers were under constant pressure from the administrators to inflate student grades. To facilitate grade inflation, the attendance policy was ditched. A student with 80-plus absences/truancies could receive a passing grade if the teacher chose to give it, whether or not the student showed any proficiency in the subject matter. This was considered equitable, and … Read More

    I recently retired after teaching for 38 years in a So Cal public high school. During the last few years, teachers were under constant pressure from the administrators to inflate student grades. To facilitate grade inflation, the attendance policy was ditched. A student with 80-plus absences/truancies could receive a passing grade if the teacher chose to give it, whether or not the student showed any proficiency in the subject matter. This was considered equitable, and teachers who did so were praised. The administration also brought in new, inexperienced adjuncts from the local community college to teach “college-level” courses on our campus in core-subject areas. The adjuncts could not come to every class period during the school week. The solution to this was to provide students with balls and frisbees so they could play in the quad with their friends during their weekly off-periods. So, with much less instruction time and not much focus on student proficiency, course completion rates are rising impressively. The administrators are crowing, and the school is being held up as an example to follow.

    So, when I read the following quote from the article, I was immediately suspicious:
    “That year [2019/20], 59% of first-time math students completed transfer-level coursework in one
    year, compared to 32% in 2015-16.”

    What does it mean to complete transfer-level coursework? Our students were receiving college credit for playing frisbee.

    Replies

    • Brandon 3 months ago3 months ago

      The author most like meant transfer-level Math coursework. For first-time college students completing transfer-level math is one of the key milestones metric as defined by the State. Generally, passing is defined as receiving a letter grade of A, B, C, or P. . Below is the link to the technical definition of it by Cal-Pass Plus. Transfer-level math courses are defined on a course data level. Courses with a CB25 (CCCO … Read More

      The author most like meant transfer-level Math coursework. For first-time college students completing transfer-level math is one of the key milestones metric as defined by the State. Generally, passing is defined as receiving a letter grade of A, B, C, or P. . Below is the link to the technical definition of it by Cal-Pass Plus.

      Transfer-level math courses are defined on a course data level. Courses with a CB25 (CCCO Data Element Dictionary; the link is also below) attribute of B means that the the course meets one of the following:

      CSU General Education Breadth Area B4: Mathematics/Quantitative ReasoningUC IGETC Area 2: Mathematical Concepts and Quantitative Reasoning

      OR

      Course has a general education certification or articulation agreement that ensures the course fulfills mathematics

      https://www.calpassplus.org/Launchboard/Student-Success-Metrics-MDD?metric=SM300C3#_Toc101873845

      https://webdata.cccco.edu/ded/cb/cb.htm

  9. el 3 months ago3 months ago

    I don't know that we have much if any data to suggest that the remedial classes were ever successful. The plan seemed to be, "This material that you didn't understand, take the same class again with the same curriculum until you eke out a pass or quit in frustration." Anecdotally, what I have seen is that being asked to *use* that material, with support, can instead be the lightbulb that builds both motivation and understanding … Read More

    I don’t know that we have much if any data to suggest that the remedial classes were ever successful. The plan seemed to be, “This material that you didn’t understand, take the same class again with the same curriculum until you eke out a pass or quit in frustration.”

    Anecdotally, what I have seen is that being asked to *use* that material, with support, can instead be the lightbulb that builds both motivation and understanding of the underlying material. It won’t always work out, and it requires careful planning and good support. But this motivation can cause several gears to click in and suddenly make sense of a whole concept that before was meaningless, arbitrary, and even punitive in the student’s mind.

    A new angle on it with a practical application can make algebra much more enjoyable.

    Finally, while we have a sequence we like for math, it’s not necessarily the case that that rigid order is the only way to learn it. I’ve seen students get excited about statistics that then leveraged that into improved fluency with algebra, and I’ve seen students who were convinced they weren’t mathy successful with a new teacher and new approach, to the point where they were able to ace calculus.

  10. Zeev Wurman 3 months ago3 months ago

    Well, I am not convinced yet. The "extensive research" the author quotes is anything but extensive. It is short-term analysis based on evaluating acceptance/passing requirements rather than on any kind of objective assessment. Same is true for the author's own experience in her own college: outcomes based on largely different and new courses with new graduation requirements that, by the nature of how they were conceived, likely have diluted definitions of "success." Nowhere is there … Read More

    Well, I am not convinced yet.

    The “extensive research” the author quotes is anything but extensive. It is short-term analysis based on evaluating acceptance/passing requirements rather than on any kind of objective assessment.

    Same is true for the author’s own experience in her own college: outcomes based on largely different and new courses with new graduation requirements that, by the nature of how they were conceived, likely have diluted definitions of “success.”

    Nowhere is there a mention of a study that attempts to compare the actual achievement of students based on the remedial-credit courses versus the new never-remedial modified and newly-defined courses. Any half-baked true evaluation of such migration would’ve undertaken one, except that our genius mandarins in Sacramento know better than to look for real data that may destroy their drive for equity-based outcomes.

    As I frequently suggested, California should start issuing college-graduation certificates together with birth certificates so we can at least stop pretending that the purpose is educating students.

  11. Matthew Lorenzini 3 months ago3 months ago

    I wish your article made your point more clearly and used fewer buzz words like "equity." I taught elementary for 40 years and saw the trend: Make excuses whenever you can for student failure. Be sure to cloak the excuses in social justice terms. I couldn't tell by your article if you are actually for or against students learning math. If you're saying remedial classes are oriented towards unnecessary academic/science related careers that most students … Read More

    I wish your article made your point more clearly and used fewer buzz words like “equity.” I taught elementary for 40 years and saw the trend: Make excuses whenever you can for student failure. Be sure to cloak the excuses in social justice terms. I couldn’t tell by your article if you are actually for or against students learning math. If you’re saying remedial classes are oriented towards unnecessary academic/science related careers that most students don’t pursue, fine. Get rid of them. But if you’re merely swimming with the tide in order to dumb down basic math literacy, I think you are a fool. It became a matter of gross cultural insensitivity, by the time I retired, to insist all students know the multiplication table.