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Commentary: How California’s new law on remedial classes can help more college students graduate

Erin Danson | January 9, 2018

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In fall 2016, one of my students dropped a well-written essay on my desk. It was the first essay of the semester, so I only asked students to write three to four pages. He wrote six. Fernando Arellano had just enrolled in Mt. San Antonio College after years serving in the National Guard. A father of one, he wants to earn a degree in aerospace engineering, join the NASA Pathways program, and provide a good life for his family. It was clear that Fernando was focused and had a strong sense of where he was going. It was also clear from his essay that he didn’t need to be in remediation.

So how did he end up in my class? Fernando was required to begin two developmental classes below college English, based on a standardized placement test he took a couple months earlier. And while it was a pleasure to have him in my class, it did not seem necessary for him to be there. His writing and critical thinking skills were already far above what was needed at that level. Far too many students like Fernando spend time and money going through remedial classes, all because placement exams can’t quite capture students’ true capabilities.

That’s why I’m thrilled that Governor Brown recently signed Assembly Bill 705, legislation that will require California community colleges to reduce their reliance on standardized placement tests. The law will require schools to consider high school grades in their placement decisions, a method research has shown to be a far more accurate and equitable representation of how students will perform in college. For example, if Fernando’s high school GPA had been considered, he would have been placed into college-level English and have a high likelihood of passing without remediation.

• Read more on AB 705: New laws help California students get a degree faster

The bill also includes an emphasis on co-requisite models of remediation, which allow underprepared students to enroll directly into college-level courses with support, instead of taking remedial courses that delay their progress toward a degree.

As one of the teachers in Mt. SAC’s co-requisite model, I’ve seen firsthand the power of this approach. Underprepared students complete the same assignments they would in a regular college English course, but they take an additional one-unit class where the teacher provides feedback and guidance to help them succeed.

Last spring, 75 percent of the students classified “unprepared” by the placement test passed the co-requisite college-level English class, a dramatic improvement over traditional remediation. Among students who began in a remedial English class in the fall, just 35 percent completed the college-level course in a year.

When students aren’t given the opportunity to take co-requisite courses, they are much more likely to drop out. A study of 57 community colleges shows that only 33 percent of math students and 46 percent of English students ever complete their remedial coursework.

I urged Fernando to take my co-requisite course the next semester, allowing him to skip a level of remediation. Not surprisingly, his final research paper was a moving analysis of why the Army has the highest suicide rate of all branches of the armed forces. To think that he could have been one of the people who “fell through the cracks” is truly awful. Fernando was lucky enough to find out about Mt. SAC’s co-requisite option and make faster progress on his goals, but across California there are too many capable students who remain stuck in remedial structures or simply drop out of them.

Fortunately, with the passage of AB 705, California now has the opportunity to more accurately place students and help more of them to graduate.

Erin Danson is a professor of English at Mt. San Antonio College.

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