Cal State Is Offering Freshmen Who Didn't Pass Remedial Math A Second Chance

Students return to campus on the first Monday of classes of the Fall 2016 semester. (Stock photo by Matthew Gush/Courtesy of CSU Fullerton/Flickr Creative Commons)

In the summer of 2017, 2,752 freshmen were dropped from the rolls in the 23-campus California State University system because they hadn't passed their remedial math and English classes their first year. The classes were supposed to lift students up to do college-level work after testing determined they couldn't.

Very few of the students who were disenrolled completed their remedial classes at a community college campus in order to return to the CSU and earn a degree, according to administrators, who say the policy was more of a gate than a bridge for students.

Now students who haven't passed the general education math class can take it again in their sophomore year. This change and other overhauls implemented this past academic year represent a shift in thinking towards an approach that seeks to keep students in school rather than punish them for failing.

LETTING STUDENTS KNOW "THEY BELONG HERE"

In the fall of 2016, two-thirds of Cal State LA's incoming freshmen tested into remedial math and English. One year later, 456 of them hadn't passed the classes and were disenrolled.

As part of its overhaul to address such high attrition rates at all campuses, Cal State revised its remedial math classes.

"We changed the courses, we changed the way faculty are trained to teach the classes, we changed our students' support program, we changed the way we advise students," said Cal State Los Angeles dean of undergraduate studies Michelle Hawley.

"We really took this opportunity to rethink our primary strategies for bringing freshmen in and supporting them in their math classes," she said.

Some of the classes that replaced remedial math focus less on operations and more on ideas. And many classes add extra time for tutoring. Students are placed in these classes based on high school grades, not on one high stakes test.

In this most recent school year, about 70% of the school's students passed the new math classes. The 30% who didn't pass will be allowed to come back and try again in their second year.

"It gives the students the message that they belong here, which they do," Hawley said.

Remedial English classes are undergoing similar changes.

"IT WASN'T THAT THE STUDENT WASN'T CAPABLE"

The policy shift started in August 2017 with an executive order from CSU Chancellor Tim White, who pointed out that most of those placed into remedial classes were black and Latino students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

The program didn't contribute any credits toward graduation because the remedial classes were non-credit. Data showed that only one in four students placed in remedial classes came back for their second year and fewer than half earned a degree within six years.

White's changes are part of Graduation Initiative 2025, a larger effort to improve graduation rates at Cal State. One of the program's goals is to have 70% of incoming freshmen graduate within six years. Only 57% had graduated in that time frame in 2015.

Doing away with the disenrollment policy will help.

Disenrollment was tough for students and their counselors.

"It was very difficult, especially because you saw that it wasn't that the student wasn't capable," said Elizabeth Riegos-Olmos, director of the student services center at Cal State Northridge's College of Science and Math at Cal State Northridge.

"It was that life circumstances got in the way ... you saw some really bright students who just had trouble transitioning in that first year," Riegos-Olmos said.

Riegos-Olmos is working with one student who would have been disenrolled under the old remedial program. She said he didn't pass the general education math class because he missed some of the classes to work part time.

"He mostly struggled his first semester," she said. "We worked with him, he came back in spring, he passed everything, improved a great deal but still just missed the mark on the math."

The student is coming back in the fall and enrolled in the class a third time, hoping he can pass it and go on to earn his degree, Riegos-Olmos said.