Welcome to Race on Campus. Community colleges want more students to transfer to a four-year institution. They also want to close the achievement gap, so all students have a fair shot at graduating. In California, tackling remedial education seems to be helping, but not everyone is convinced. I have the story below.

If you have ideas, comments, or questions about this newsletter, write to me: fernanda@chronicle.com.

Placement Tests and Achievement Gaps

California community colleges have a problem to solve. State lawmakers and college leaders alike want to make it possible for more students to transfer to a four-year institution. Lately, they’ve been focused on lowering a key hurdle: remedial classes.

These noncredit courses bring students up to speed for transfer-level courses — credit-bearing classes that can transfer to a four-year institution. Remedial classes cost money but don’t count toward a degree, which can be discouraging for students with limited time and funds for college.

Traditionally, students are given placement tests to determine whether they’ll need a remedial class before they’re eligible for credit-bearing, transfer-level courses. But research has shown that those assessments often under-placed students, and that high-school coursework, grades, and grade-point averages were better predictors of success in transfer-level courses.

So in 2017, the California governor signed Assembly Bill 705, which, among other measures, limits the circumstances when colleges can use placement tests to determine who’s eligible for transfer-level courses, requiring them to use high-school performance instead.

This legislation changed outcomes for students of color and closed some of the achievement gaps between white students and students of color.

In 2015-16, 2 percent of Black students and 5 percent of Hispanic students completed transfer-level math and English within the first year of enrollment, according to data from the system chancellor’s office. Meanwhile, 10 percent of white students completed the transfer-level courses.

In the 2020-21 academic year, two years after the legislation fully took effect, completion rates rose to 17 percent among Hispanic students, 9 percent for Black students, and 21 percent for white students, data shows.

‘Pretty Transformational’

Lawmakers want to build on this momentum with additional legislation — Assembly Bill 1705 — which would further limit situations where students would be enrolled in noncredit courses, in some cases requiring that students be allowed to self-place. The proposed legislation also includes more robust data tracking on student progress and graduation rates.

Advocates for 705 and 1705 say that the changes have helped thousands of students and closed racial-achievement gaps.

Elsewhere, colleges have seen promising results from eliminating placement tests and lowering the number of students in remedial classes. At Warren County Community College, in New Jersey, cutting the placement test led to an increase in graduation rates. Texas, Florida, and Connecticut passed legislation similar to California’s in hopes of reducing remedial placements. In Florida, the program has yielded varied results.

Audrey Dow, senior vice president at the Campaign for College Opportunity, said she’s pleased with the increase of students passing transfer-level courses. A few years ago, Dow said she and colleagues took note that fewer Latino/a and Black students were completing a college credential compared to their white peers. One of the barriers was a “broken transfer process,” Dow said.

There was little to no guidance for students who wanted to transfer to a four-year institution, but before students got to that point, many weren’t taking 1000-level (or transfer-level) English and math courses. Instead, they went to remedial education.

Now that there are more students, especially students of color, taking transfer-level coursework within a year of starting at a community college, these students still need help, she said.

Sometimes the support is academic, but other times it can take the form of commuting costs, child care, or help with groceries, said Olga Rodriguez, director of the Public Policy Institute of California’s Higher Education Center.

Rodriguez called AB 705 “pretty transformational.” Doing away with the standardized tests for course-placement showed that many more students than previously enrolled were prepared for transfer-level courses.

Set Up for Failure?

Though national news stories have centered around the legislation’s success, not everyone is on board. Wendy Brill-Wynkoop, president of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, said that some students who start at transfer-level courses are still being left behind, especially students of color.

In both math and English, a smaller proportion of students who started at transfer level in 2019-20 completed the coursework within a year, compared to 2015-16. But the declines were sharper among Black and Hispanic students.

In the 2015-16 academic year, 60 percent of Black students enrolled in transfer-level math courses completed the coursework within a year, but for the 2019-20 academic year, that number dropped to 48 percent, according to the chancellor’s Transfer-Level Gateway Completion dashboard.For English, Black students’ completion rates dropped from 67 percent to 58 percent for the same academic years.

This trend is especially concerning for STEM courses, Brill-Wynkoop said. The concern is that if a student isn’t sufficiently prepared and struggles with a transfer-level math course, it could deter a student from majoring in a STEM field. There also isn’t enough data to identify why completion is down in math for this group, so it’s more difficult to figure out what’s not working, Brill-Wynkoop said. Ultimately, more data is needed for all students, not just STEM, she wrote in a later email.

She wrote that AB 705 increased the total amount of students who completed transfer-level math and English, but the course completion rate has declined for all students taking transfer-level math and English.

“The course completion equity gaps are growing,” Brill-Wynkoop wrote. “In other words, we have placed more students directly into the transfer level, so the total number of students has increased. But if you look at the percentage of successful students, that has decreased.”

Stephanie Goldman, associate director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, said the pandemic also made implementing the new law more difficult. Some faculty members have said that they were more lenient with grading when colleges made the jump to online learning in 2020. Some students had learning gaps from their previous institutions or didn’t pick up as much during the pandemic. In turn, some faculty members feel that putting more students into transfer-level courses is too much, too soon.

One instructor wrote in an essay criticizing the legislation that students who are not prepared for transfer-level courses are set up for failure. In response, Dow said that instructors should ask themselves: How is a struggling student being supported elsewhere on your campus? Instructors should work with their department and campus to help the student succeed, not push them back with a noncredit course, she said.

Brill-Wynkoop said that remedial education can be a barrier to completing college, especially when a student can handle transfer-level courses. But ultimately, education isn’t a barrier to education, she said. The cost of college, unmet basic needs like housing and transportation, and mental-health concerns limit students.

Read Up

  • A working group of Texas instructors — including a professor at the University of Texas at Rio Grande Valley — are advising the state’s education board that slavery should be taught as “involuntary relocation” for second-grade social studies courses. (The Texas Tribune)
  • Jacob Frey, mayor of Minneapolis, has been accused of retaliating against employees who spoke up about racism and a “toxic work culture” at the City Coordinator’s Office. (Sahan Journal)
  • The Nile Swim Club in Pennsylvania was the country’s first Black-owned private swim club. Part of its mission was to lower drowning rates for Black children, which are about eight times that of white children. Speaking of, at colleges across the country, swim tests used to be a mainstay, but in recent years, colleges have dropped them. (The New York Times, The Chronicle)

    —Fernanda