California Currents

More community college students entering, passing transfer-level math, English

City College of San Francisco, one of the state's 114 community colleges. (Photo courtesy of CCSF)

More students, especially black and Latino students, are benefiting from the elimination of remedial classes in California’s community colleges, according to a new report.

An analysis released Sept. 27 by the RP Group, a nonpartisan organization that provides research on behalf of the California Community Colleges system, found more students enrolling in courses that offer credits eligible for transfer to a four-year college and more African American and Latino students passing those classes.

The analysis examines the effect of a landmark state law approved two years ago — AB 705 — on the state’s 114 community colleges and their students. The law allows more community college students to take courses with credits that can be used to transfer to four-year colleges without having to take remedial classes in those subjects first.

These courses, in community college shorthand, are called “transfer-level” courses.

The law goes into effect this fall, but colleges have begun complying for the past two years. The law eliminated using just placement tests to assess students, which often kept them out of English and math classes with credits eligible for transfer. Instead of standardized placement tests alone, colleges must rely on multiple measures, which can include high school grade-point averages, to assess incoming students.

The law was approved by the Legislature and former Gov. Jerry Brown in 2017. Between fall 2017 and fall 2018, enrollment in English courses eligible for transfer increased from 56 percent to 72 percent, according to the RP Group report. During that same period, enrollment in math courses eligible for transfer increased from 32 percent to 43 percent.

“We have a mix of colleges at various levels of implementation (of AB 705) and some have gotten further along than others,” said John Hetts, visiting executive of research and data for the community college system. “But even so, we’re seeing a significant portion of students getting into transfer-level English and math and through the transfer-level courses successfully the year before compliance.”

Enrollment in these courses increased significantly among black and Latino students in that one-year period:

  • Black student enrollment in English courses went from 45 percent to 63 percent.
  • Latino student enrollment in English courses went from 49 percent to 68 percent.
  • Black student enrollment in math courses increased from 20 percent to 30 percent.
  • Latino student enrollment in math courses increased from 24 percent to 36 percent.

The number of students who completed the transfer-level courses with an A, B or C grade also increased. In English, that number increased by 18,903 last year compared to the year before.

“The stability of success rates in the face of substantial enrollment growth is an encouraging sign that many students are in fact ready to meet the challenge of advanced coursework,” according to the analysis.

Latino students saw the largest gains in English despite overall completion rates decreasing for the group. Because the total pool of students grew substantially larger, completion rates in 2018 for Latino students decreased by 2 percentage points in English, but significantly more Latino students passed the course than the year before. Nearly 10,570 more Latino students passed the English course in 2018 — a 74 percent increase.

However in math, with more students entering the courses, fewer students passed. The report acknowledges that the decreases in completion rates and the overall growing number of students could mean students need additional help, such as tutoring or extended class times, to help them complete the courses.

Success rates — students completing courses with a grade of A, B, or C — did increase among black students in statistical math courses that are eligible for transfer credit. That number increased by 2 percentage points to 49 percent in 2018. The number of black students enrolled in those courses also increased from 424 in 2017 to 654 the following year.

The analysis finds that standardized placement testing has a racial bias and that the colleges may have been underestimating the ability of students to succeed in more rigorous courses. One of the problems the colleges have faced is relying on a single, standardized test to place students in remedial courses, Hetts said, adding that those tests often placed black and Latino students in remedial classes.

“Underrepresented students of color were disproportionately assigned into (remedial classes),” he said. “The majority of students served by the community colleges are underrepresented students of color, low-income, first generation or a combination of those things. All of those student populations are ones in which these tests do a poor job of measuring.”

Hetts said the analysis shows far more students are prepared to do rigorous work than the colleges previously gave them credit for.

Community colleges are grappling with change as they eliminate remedial courses and provide more academic support for students, Hetts said.

“These types of changes are hard and challenging and lead us to have to rethink how we think about students and ourselves in the classroom and about how our classes and colleges are structured,” he said.

The analysis doesn’t dive into any curriculum changes, or additional supports students may be receiving in their classes. For example, co-requisite remediation is a popular type of support colleges apply to transfer-level courses. Students in a co-requisite course may have additional time in labs, more one-on-one support, or extended class periods to help them through the courses that can be used to transfer to four-year institutions.

Joshua Elizondo, 23, is a third-year student studying world diplomacy and international affairs at Santa Monica College. On his first attempt at taking a transfer-level math course, known as Math 54: Elementary Statistics, Elizondo said he failed.

“When they added the new AB 705 stuff, the campus put in an additional hour into Math 54 classes which allows extra tutoring and one-on-one time,” he said. “I took it again with the support system in place and I passed it.”

He’s hoping for a similar result in English.

“I failed English three times,” he said. “I’m about to take it again for the fourth time and I’m definitely more optimistic … Based on my experience with math, English will be different this time around.”

Faculty support of AB 705 isn’t unanimous.

Some instructors have concerns about how colleges are eliminating remedial courses and the impact on students, said Stephanie Goldman, associate director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, which has taken a neutral position on the law.

“Not every student is coming to our schools because they want to transfer,” Goldman said. “Some of them are doing career education courses and some are trying to better themselves. Transfer is a great goal for a lot of students but certainly not the goal for every student.”

Some students who would have been placed in a remedial course are succeeding in the classes that count toward transfer credit to universities, but faculty still see students who aren’t prepared for the more rigorous courses, Goldman said.

Faculty worry about those students dropping out, as well as the extra work it places on instructors to serve a group of students with variable levels of preparedness, she said.

The analysis shows that the number of students withdrawing from the transfer-level English and math courses increased only 1 percentage point from 2017 to 2018.

“Part of what colleges are embracing and getting better at is recognizing that learning is not supposed to feel easy and teaching is not supposed to feel easy,” Hetts said. “Faculty at our colleges have had to stretch and are challenged to do new work, and it’s been amazing given the incredible number of demands on their time. But faculty have risen to this challenge and provided broader support for students.”

Story originally published by EdSource.