Remedial Classes Aren't Working In Community Colleges — And Now They're About To Be Canceled

Students walk on campus at West Los Angeles College in L.A. in November, 2016. (Photo by Susanica Tam / For KPCC)

The numbers were embarrassing to everyone involved. Eight out of ten students at California's community colleges needed remedial education. In other words, courses just to get them up to college-level work.

Those classes did not count toward a degree, but they cost just as much. And the students identified as needing them were significantly more likely to be black or Latino than white or Asian.

Now, by next year, those remedial classes will be almost entirely eliminated. In the higher education world, it's a shift on the magnitude of turning a battleship on a dime.

HOW WE GOT HERE

The change started around 2010. Armed with data that showed remedial classes weren't helping students, college professors and administrators started to think differently.

What if — instead of getting high school graduates up-to-speed — they adapted the college classes to prepare for the students?

They focused on the 2.1 million student, 114-campus California Community College system.

STEP ONE: WAS THE TEST FAIR?

Those studying the problem found that the test used to determine if a student needed remediation was flawed. The remedy? Assess students using multiple measures.

Another finding: Students fared better when they took non-remedial college classes and got extra help. In fact, those students were finishing more classes.

"We've been putting students in remedial classes who were perfectly capable of performing in a college-level class," said Katie Hern, a community college professor who is Executive Director of the California Acceleration Project.

Hern, whose group has been helping community colleges create alternatives to remedial classes, walked us through some milestones that led to this fundamental shift:

CIRCA 2010

The California Acceleration Project starts talking to faculty and administrators about the data that showed that remedial classes weren't helping students. They also began working on alternatives.

2014

Up until now, colleges relied on a single test to determine who needed remedial classes. This year, the Multiple Measures Assessment Project begins helping campuses figure out how to weigh more factors, such as high school grade point average and types of high school classes taken.

2017

The Cal State system eliminates a key stumbling block for many community college transfers: the intermediate algebra requirement.

The move to get rid of it was huge. That's because many community college students transfer to a Cal State university and requiring that class was a barrier some students could not get past. The change instead allowed community colleges to offer alternative math courses that met the threshold for a student to transfer to a CSU.

In addition, AB 705 was signed by Governor Jerry Brown. The legislation gives students the right to choose community college English or math classes that give them the best chances of success. Remember, research shows that's college level classes not remedial courses. And that really cleared the way for what's happening now.

2018

Publications including PPIC 2018, A Seat at the Table, Leading the Way, Up to the Challenge spread the word, highlighting successful reforms at campuses such as San Diego Mesa College and Cuyamaca College. Showing campus leaders that the strategy was resulting in more students staying in school encouraged them to follow at their own colleges.

Here's why: California community colleges that made the changes early have seen improved rates of students earning an associate's degree, as well as more students transferring to a four year university.


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