Panel endorses bill aimed at reducing number of college students in remedial classes

Courtesy of EdSource | Larry Gordon/EdSource Today

Reformers have scored legislative progress in their efforts to enroll many more California community college students in credit-bearing courses instead of remedial classes, with placements based on high school grades rather than just placement exams.

Critics decry remedial classes as dead ends that often lead to students dropping out. Students too often feel trapped in remedial courses even though they might have done well if they were admitted directly into credit classes that count toward their diplomas, according to researchers.

With about 80 percent of community college students statewide now reportedly being required to take at least one non-credit remedial course in English or math, the proposed legislation could have a big impact in moving hundreds of thousands of students faster to their degrees and reducing dropout rates, supporters say.

The state Assembly’s Committee on Higher Education unanimously passed a bill, AB 705, this week that would require all community colleges to use high school grades as an important part of the placement decision and to give students much more opportunity to skip remedial courses and go directly to college level ones.

In a major shift, the bill would reverse the traditional burden of proof: instead of students testing their way into credit classes, colleges would have to enroll them into those courses unless “those students are highly unlikely to succeed in them.” Colleges would have to “maximize the probability that students will enter and complete college-level coursework in English and math within a one-year time frame,” the bill states.

Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, the bill’s author, cited research that shows that placement exams by themselves are not good predictors of students’ success in college and she pointed to disheartening statistics that show large numbers of students never progress past remedial math and English. “By helping students move through college at a rate that matches their potential, AB 705 will allow students to graduate faster and increase their likelihood for success,” she said at the committee hearing Tuesday.

The change would ally California more strongly to a growing movement nationwide to overhaul placement policies and to also create so-called co-requisite courses that allow remedial students to earn credit in classes that cover college level material with extra hours of lecture time and tutoring. The California State University system recently began an effort to eliminate all non-credit remedial classes and replace them with co-requisites by 2018.

For decades, California community colleges have been required to at least look at high school grades but many in the past used them only rarely, primarily in close-call cases when students narrowly failed placement yet had A’s in high school courses, officials said. In the past few years, some of the 113 community colleges in California have dramatically changed such placement by using high school grades as the main factor.

According to the statewide community colleges’ chancellors office, 67 campuses are participating in the Multiple Measures Assessment Project , which is piloting different ways to evaluate students and creating a data bank on the topic. But reformers say more and faster efforts are needed.

Katie Hern, co-founder of the California Acceleration Project, a statewide faculty-led group that has been working to change remedial education, praised the Assembly committee’s 10-0 bipartisan vote. In an interview Wednesday, she said that remedial placement is “the single biggest barrier to college completion.” And while other issues such as poverty and family responsibilities will still obstruct students, AB 705 would “do a lot to address the restrictive and unfair placement policies we currently now have,” said Hern, who is an English instructor at Chabot College in Hayward.

Her Acceleration organization recently published a new report, titled “Up to the Challenge: Community Colleges Expand Access to College-Level Courses,” which details experiences of community college students who were classified by tests as needing “basic skills” improvement, but were allowed into college level classes and did well.

Hern noted that the bill allows local districts to develop their own methods of judging students and does not eliminate standardized placement exams. In some cases colleges will look at overall high school GPAs for English placements with closer looks at individual math class grades in high school for math placements.

Some faculty members are worried that such changes will allow academically weak students into difficult classes and that the material will have to be watered down to avoid massive failure rates. But Hern said such fears have been proved to be unwarranted at schools where placements have been reformed. Professors there “are teaching challenging courses and students are rising to the college courses,” she said.

Remedial courses may still exist for students who badly need improvement. After all, community colleges have no entrance standards other than a high school degree. But many such classes may be replaced by the co-requisite model, officials say.

The state’s community college system and its chancellor, Eloy Oritz Oakley, are “very supportive”of the bill’s goals, according to Laura Metune, the system’s vice chancellor for external relations. Oakley previously headed Long Beach City College, which has been using multiple measures in recent years. But Metune and other officials expressed hopes that the bill can be somewhat changed to push for the creation of a statewide data system so high school transcripts can be shared easily to help evaluate students at any college statewide. They also want the bill to allow more flexibility on campuses. For example, schools may want to experiment on how they place older students who start college many years after high school, Metune said. There are concerns that the proposed law might “lock in” measurements that prove to be obsolete in coming years, she said.
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An influential study issued in November by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) showed the extent of the problem: That 80 percent of students entering community colleges enroll in at least one remedial course based on their testing results or other criteria. About 87 percent of Latinos and African Americans are placed into at least one remedial class, compared with 74 percent of whites and 70 percent of Asians. The study found that only 44 percent of students complete their sequence of math remedial courses within six years, while 60 percent do so in English.

That report also said that the more such courses that students are required to take, the more likely they are to drop out before they get to credit-bearing classes. Just 16 percent of students placed in remedial courses later earn a certificate or associate degree in six years, the study found. Overall, remedial education at most California community colleges, remedial – or developmental, as the study calls it – education “is lengthy, attrition is high and outcomes are poor,” stated the report.

AB 705 now undergoes review by the Assembly Committee on Appropriations and then possibly to votes by the two houses of the Legislature. Since legislative leaders have expressed support for the bill’s goals, Irwin and other advocates are optimistic about its chances of passage and signing by Gov. Jerry Brown. But much could happen between now and the legislative recess in mid-September and the governor’s subsequent review of any bill that passes.

Its passage would be “a game changer for ensuring that more students have an opportunity to enter into college-level math and English,” said Jessie Ryan, executive vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a California organization that advocates for improved access to affordable higher education and has consulted on the bill’s details. The bill’s passage “is an equity imperative” since Latino, African American and low income students are now disproportionately pushed into remedial classes, she said.

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