Lawmakers want strict rules so students avoid no-credit remedial courses

Credit: Andrew Reed / EdSource

Students study together at the library at De Anza College in Cupertino before the pandemic in 2019.

Arguing that too many community college students are getting stuck in remedial classes, California lawmakers are pushing a new bill that would create stricter rules dictating when colleges are allowed to enroll students in those courses.

Assembly Bill 1705 would build on Assembly Bill 705, the landmark California law passed in 2017 that says community colleges must allow most students access to transfer-level classes without first needing to take remedial classes, which are noncredit courses that can’t be used to transfer to a four-year university. Requiring students to take those courses has been shown to often derail them from completing an associate degree or pursuing a bachelor’s degree.

The new law, which has already cleared the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee, would clarify that colleges can only enroll students in remedial classes under specific circumstances and must back up those enrollment decisions with data. For example, if a student pursuing a science degree had a low high school GPA and the college had data showing that students with similar high school grades fared well in the same major after taking remedial classes, that could be an acceptable reason to enroll the student in those courses.

In the absence of that kind of evidence, colleges would be expected to enroll students directly in transfer-level math and English classes. Supporters of the bill include the statewide chancellor’s office, many student organizations and Assemblymember Jose Medina, chair of the Assembly Higher Education Committee. It is opposed, however, by the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges, a statewide advocacy group that says the bill creates too many new rules and doesn’t allow counselors enough flexibility to do their jobs.

The proponents say the bill is necessary because counselors should be using data to determine where students should enroll, rather than relying on their own personal beliefs or implicit biases. They say the latter is happening at colleges where many students are still taking remedial classes even though they aren’t required to under the law.

In most cases, regardless of a counselor’s recommendation, the student makes the final decision on which course to take. Under AB 705, students can only be required to take remedial courses if a college can show they are highly unlikely to succeed in transfer-level coursework.

Overall, far more students are entering and completing transfer-level classes under the law. In fall 2020, 46% of first-time math students completed transfer-level math within one term, up from 24% in 2018, according to a report by the Public Policy Institute of California published in December. But that same report found that at 1 in 5 colleges, a third or more of students enrolled in remedial classes and that those students were disproportionately Black and Latino.

Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, the author of the new bill, said that kind of data was the impetus behind the bill. “In some colleges, they’re still being nudged toward remedial when they don’t need it,” Irwin said.

The newly proposed law specifies that colleges must rely on high school coursework, high school grades and high school grade point averages when determining how to place and enroll new students. The law also states that any one measure can demonstrate that a student is ready for transfer-level classes and that low performance on one measure should be offset by a higher performance on another measure. For example, if a student had a low grade point average in high school but received a passing grade in algebra courses, that could be sufficient evidence to enroll the student directly in a transfer-level math class, such as statistics or college algebra. The law would prohibit colleges from requiring students to repeat coursework that they’ve already completed in high school or college.

Requiring colleges to rely on those measures is a logical step, said Evelyn Martinez, a second-year student at East Los Angeles College who will be transferring to UCLA for the fall 2022 term.

Martinez, a sociology major who graduated from high school 12 years before starting in community college, enrolled directly in a transfer-level statistics course in 2020 when she first started taking classes at East LA College. But when she met with a counselor, the counselor recommended to her that she consider instead starting with a remedial class, saying that because Martinez had been out of school for so many years, she may need a refresher course.

Martinez added that the counselor didn’t cite any data or evidence indicating that enrolling in a remedial course would benefit her. Martinez wasn’t aware at the time of AB 705 but was still adamant that she should be enrolled in the statistics course, where she remained. But she worries about students who may not have as much conviction as she does.

“If they’re having these conversations with people who are not strong-willed like I am, I do feel like it might impact them, and they might be like, ‘Oh, OK, you’re right. You know, I’ll take this class.’ But then in the long run, it’s affecting the student, not the counselor,” Martinez said.

In the view of the faculty association, though, the new bill goes too far. Evan Hawkins, the executive director of the group, emphasized that the faculty association isn’t opposed to AB 705 and the reforms it introduced, but added that the latest bill is too “prescriptive.”

“There are a lot of additional rules that are written very clearly. Language about what counselors can or cannot mention, that’s at a level that’s just completely unnecessary from our perspective,” he said. “And it’s an overarching concern about how involved the Legislature should really be in what classes we’re offering or what best meets our students’ needs.”

Hawkins argued that, in some cases, students may benefit from taking remedial classes, such as an English student who takes a pretransfer-level writing course.

Irwin, the bill’s author, said the bill doesn’t intend to get rid of remedial classes completely and that she agrees that in certain circumstances, those courses may help students. But she added that recommending those classes should be limited to situations when a college has strong evidence, based on a student’s high school grades or performance, that taking the remedial class would improve their likelihood of eventually completing transfer-level coursework.

Irwin said she intends to collaborate with the faculty association in the coming months and hopes to gain its support as the bill makes its way through the Legislature. The bill would next head to the Assembly’s Appropriations Committee.

Irwin already gained a key ally in the Assembly when Medina, the higher education committee chair, threw his support behind the bill at a recent committee hearing.

“Students shouldn’t suffer by having to remain in community college for years and not being able to get out of remedial classes,” he said. “Community colleges need to do better for our students, especially for students of color. I support this bill. I support what the author is trying to do.”

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