COMMENTARY: Colleges should stop offering options that hinder students’ progress

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 AB 705 changed my understanding of what it means to help students succeed. This law required California community colleges to show that the non-credit 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 towards CSU and UC 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 or advance in their current profession, 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 to 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, Assembly member 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 what they 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 Angelo, “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.

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