SDCCD overhauls English remedial course structure

Reform anticipates state law accelerating the path to transfer-level courses

Monica de la Cruz, Managing Editor

May 23, 2018

It’s been 26 years since a lawsuit against the California Community College System forced the state’s two-year colleges to agree to stop over-relying on standardized tests in student placement. The 1991 suit filed by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund established that these tests yielded inaccurate and biased results. The test also apparently referred a disproportionate number of minority students to remedial courses.

Eric Nelson, a former City College student, said he had to challenge the results of the school’s English assessment, which placed him in a non-credit basic skills course. At the time, the placement assessment didn’t include a writing component, and was just a series of multiple choice questions. “I thought it was kinda funny, until I realized how much weight that one test had. I wrote a letter of appeal, and they sent me an apology,” said Nelson. The single-measure assessment has endured as the primary method of placement in the California Community College system.

Finally, after decades of research proving the inaccuracy of single-measure assessments and countless testimonies of students whose graduations are delayed by what they say is unnecessary, costly, time-consuming remedial courses, the state is enacting reform. Last October, Gov. Jerry  Brown signed AB 705, which states that colleges are required, “to maximize the probability that a student will enter and complete transfer-level coursework in English and mathematics within a one-year timeframe,” and that colleges consider high school grades, coursework, CST scores, GPA and other measures in placement to ensure that students advance past remedial coursework within one year. The state sets Fall 2019 as the deadline to implement multi-measure placement, but the law is vague in defining how colleges should transition to the new model, and how to support students in mastering basic English and math skills within one year.

Overhauling the standard student placement model and remedial course structure is an enormous task with far-reaching consequences, but San Diego City College administrators and faculty are optimistic the district will reach the goals of AB-705. SDCC Acting Dean of Student Development and Matriculation, Nesha Savage, and Professor Jan Jarrell, head of English Department, both report that City College is ahead of schedule in adopting the state’s mandate.

Administration and faculty have been working in coordination to ensure that resources are in place to reach multi-measure placement standards by the 2018 fall semester. At the district level, three workgroups comprised of faculty, administrators, and researchers from City, Mesa, and Grossmont Colleges have been meeting monthly to drive reform in placement and curriculum in English, math, and English language acquisition, (ELAC). English Department head said explained that the reform process has been positive because stakeholders share a similar goal of providing the most efficient learning path for students to reach English 100. Laughing, she said, “This may be the one area where students, faculty, and administration are all on the same page.”

The unanimous support for reforming the placement system and streamlining basic skills courses comes research has definitively proved that single-measure placement tests have unfairly placed students in remedial courses and deterred students from graduating. An analysis from December 2017 by inewsource/Hechinger Report found that of the hundreds of thousands of California Community College students that place in remedial courses each year, “Latino students are twice as likely as whites to end up in the lowest level of remedial English, and African-American students are five times as likely.”

The same report found that multiple measure placement, which considers high school cumulative GPA, state standardized tests, and high school coursework, are much more accurate and equitable across student’s ethnicity. With single-measure placement, just 20 percent of African-American students and 30 percent of Latino students placed into transfer-level courses, but when multiple measures were considered in placement, those rates rose to 40 and 51 percent, respectively.

Data show that students who place into remedial classes are very unlikely to pass or advance to college-level courses, especially minority students. Records from the California Community College Chancellor’s Office show that over six semesters between 2014 and 2016, the pass rate among Hispanic (sic) students placed two levels below transfer level English was only 29 percent. The pass rate among African American students in the same circumstances was 19 percent.

Some community college administrators might be concerned that multiple-measure placement might send students into transfer-level courses unprepared, early success has been shown in pilot programs. For example, students placed by multiple measures at Cañada College in Redwood City, just south of San Francisco, significantly increased transfer course enrollment, and 75 percent earned a C or higher.

Research points to the benefits of multi-measure placement and an accelerated remedial course sequence, but the path to implementation is less clear. Professor Jarrell explained that since the district began developing the accelerated basic skills series in 2010, their goal has been to minimize the course load without shorting students on essential instruction. To provide adequate preparation for transfer level courses in the shortest amount of time, the district adopted a co-requisite model with built-in supplemental instruction.

Steadily over years, the traditional four-course basic skills series has been phased out, and students can now take a one-semester track to English 101. City College student Tee Tran began his path to transfer-level courses this semester with English 47 after challenging his placement in an English language acquisition class, which was based on an inaccurate student record that listed Vietnamese as his only language. Students such as Tran are benefiting from a shorter timeline to graduation, but must condense significant growth in reading comprehension and composition into a matter of months. When asked how he would fare if he were to enter directly into English 101, Tran replied, “I would do terribly, but I would try my best.” He added, “I had been out of school for a while, and this class whipped me back into shape.”

Funding from the Title V grant has been invested in support for students and staff as the colleges transition to multi-measure placement and English course redesign. Jarrell said that City College has dedicated funding to training and transitioning English faculty to meet higher demand for English 101 and co-requisite courses, as well as hiring new lecturers and tutors.  

Each accelerated course is supplemented by an in-class English tutor to provide students with more individualized instruction and hands-on support in developing college-level reading, critical thinking, and writing skills in a shorter time frame. Eric Nelson, the City alum who shared their experience of being misplaced in lower level English classes, is now an English tutor. Nelson said that his personal experience as a City College student allows him to connect to students and become “like a liaison between the students and the professor.” Though he was trained to offer tutoring at all English levels, he said their effort is focused where it’s needed the most: in helping more students establish basic skills in lower level classes that will allow them to succeed in English 101 and beyond.