This fall, nearly 40 percent of incoming freshmen at California State University were placed in developmental math or English courses. In the state’s sprawling community college system, three-quarters of any given incoming group is deemed unprepared for college-level work when they arrive.
It will be semesters or even years – and thousands of dollars in additional tuition costs – until these students can begin the general education classes that advance them toward a degree. Frustrated or discouraged, many will drop out before they ever reach that point.
So California policymakers, eyeing educational experiments across the country that improved student achievement, are now pushing for sweeping changes to the traditional way colleges have helped students catch up. By next year, the high-stakes placement tests and non-credit courses could be largely eliminated.
“Our diverse student body and the expectations for our students has changed dramatically. So we have to revisit our policies,” said Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor for the California Community Colleges. “We see this as a win for students, a win for the colleges and a win for taxpayers.”
Experts say the system has a tendency to push more students into remedial work than truly need it, unnecessarily putting them behind schedule in their academic plans. CSU and community colleges have for decades relied on placement exams that help determine whether students are ready for college-level math and English or need to review the basics. The University of California has no remedial education program.
Olga Rodriguez, a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, said the tests are not predictive of the skills students need to be successful in college. Some students, who might pass if they studied, fail because they are rusty after a summer off from school or were simply unaware of the exam.
“The correlations there aren’t strong. It’s just that it’s been an acceptable way to assess a lot of students at once,” Rodriguez said.
The results also reflect the same racial and income gaps that appear in other standardized testing. A recent PPIC report found that 87 percent of African Americans and Latinos enrolled in California community colleges take at least one developmental English or math course, compared to 70 percent of Asians and 73 percent of whites. Among low-income students, it is 86 percent.
These students take on average two or more terms to finish their remedial courses. Fewer than half ever complete the math sequence, and only 60 percent complete the English sequence.
“There are equity issues,” Rodriguez said.
Assemblywoman Jacqui Irwin is trying to address that disparity with a bill that would require community colleges to aim to get students into transfer-level classes within one year. That includes taking into account additional measures, such as their high school coursework, when assessing whether they should be placed in remedial education. Assembly Bill 705 is now on the governor’s desk, awaiting a signature.
“This is just a huge waste of human talent,” Irwin said. “You have so many young people who have made the decision to go to community college and then they’re looking at three years before they can even take a college course.”
The system is weighing other changes as well.
Oakley said colleges are “trying to put students at the center” by testing accelerated courses that combine multiple levels of remedial work into a single semester. He is also pushing for alternatives to the requirement that students complete algebra to earn an associate degree or transfer; similar to a policy that CSU recently adopted, Oakley proposes that students outside science and engineering majors could instead take statistics or other math subjects more applicable to their fields of study.
“Every one of our more than 2 million students comes with different circumstances, and we need to be able to adapt to their needs,” he said.
California State University, meanwhile, is moving quickly to do away with remedial classes altogether. Chancellor Timothy White issued an executive order this summer to have the 23-campus system redesign its developmental education so that all students can begin earning credit on their first day.
CSU plans to eliminate the use of placement exams and instead assess incoming freshmen on a combination of factors like high school grades and standardized tests scores. Those who are found to be unprepared for college-level English or math will be placed in the same general education courses as their peers, but they might receive additional tutoring or take the class at a slower pace, stretched out over multiple semesters.
“It gives them a fighting chance to not only finish the first year, but ultimately cross the commencement stage,” said James Minor, senior strategist for academic success and inclusive excellence. Two years ago, about 13 percent of freshmen in remedial classes did not pass and were ineligible to return to school.
Observers often wonder why the university has so many students who are not prepared for college-level work to begin with.
Christine Mallon, assistant vice chancellor of academic programs and faculty development, said all of the students who place into the remedial track meet the qualifications for admission. Many simply need a quick refresher in some key concepts.
“This is actually elevating the education, because we are not basically reteaching high school classes anymore,” she said.
Minor added that the evidence there is a better approach has reached a “tipping point.” He points to examples like Tennessee, which conducted a community college study where remedial students were placed in general introductory courses, but given supplemental instruction as well. The rate of students earning college credit in their first year more than doubled for English and quintupled for math, and more of them enrolled again the next fall.
“This is not a revolution,” Minor said. “This is a movement in higher education that CSU is responding to.”
The faculty has raised concerns about the speed of the overhaul, though. Last month, the Academic Senate passed a resolution urging the university to delay the changes by at least a year.
Christine Miller, chair of the Academic Senate and a professor of communication studies at Sacramento State, said the faculty supports the university’s ultimate goal, but “we just can’t catch our breath with the timeline” to do it all in one year.
Campuses are developing their own changes to introductory courses, as well as figuring out what measures they want to use to assess students and how. Then there are implications at a more “granular level,” Miller said, like adjusting student advising, making sure the information on university websites is up to date, and notifying everyone who is affected, from potential students to high school guidance counselors.
“It’s like trying to build the plane while you’re trying to fly it,” she said. “We of course don’t want to crash that plane while students are on it.”
Minor said CSU has acknowledged the faculty’s concerns, but it is moving forward on completing the changes by next fall. The university has made $10 million available to assist campuses that might need additional help with designing their curriculum and other technical assistance.
“It demands a sense of urgency,” he said. “I can’t imagine we’ll continue to expose our students to programs that we know don’t serve them very well.”