As an English teacher at a community college, I specialized in teaching remedial classes. I am deeply committed to the open-access mission of California community colleges, and I know that not everyone is privileged to have a solid high school education. A well-taught remedial class could make up for that, I thought, and prepare students to do well in college.
While teaching these courses, I often saw students writing college-level papers, and wondered why they weren’t in college English. But that didn’t worry me much. More practice couldn’t hurt, right?
Then I saw research. It turns out that taking a remedial course hurts students. A lot.
In English and math, students do better when they start in college-level transferable courses. In fall 2019, 60% of students who started math at the transfer level passed in less than a year. Of those who took a remedial course, only 14% took transfer-level math courses.
All student groups examined to date have a higher transfer-level course completion rate when they start these courses. This includes students often cited as “needing” remedial classes – students with low high school GPAs, students with disabilities, English language learners, low-income students, returning adults.
That’s why I’m supporting AB1705, which will go to the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee next week. And that’s why I’m so disappointed that professors are opposing the bill, like John Fox in an April 19 Mercury News commentary.
AB1705 is the follow-up to AB705, a 2017 law meant to ensure remedial classes don’t derail students’ college dreams. Prior to AB705, 80% of California community college students started in remedial classes. Their transfer and graduation rates were about half those of students who started transfer-level courses.
When AB705 prohibited colleges from forcing students to take remedial courses, one-year completion of transfer-level courses rose from 49% to 67% in English and from 26% to 50% in statewide math (Fall 2015-Fall 2019).
Yet implementation has been uneven. Some colleges followed the research and eliminated remedial classes altogether, while others continued to enroll students in these classes, especially colleges with large black and Hispanic populations. We need AB1705 to ensure that all students benefit from the law.
Opponents point out that pass rates in transfer-level courses declined after AB 705, and that’s true. There have been modest declines. But these data omit all students who took remedial courses. When you include all students, you find that tens of thousands of additional students have completed the main requirements for obtaining a university degree. By focusing on this single data point, my colleagues are either misinformed about the larger research or are using the kind of misdirection magicians use to draw your attention to what is really going on.
AB705 has given virtually all students access to transfer-level courses, and faculty will need time and support to learn how to teach a wider student population, not the heavily selected students previously allowed to register. Colleges will need to develop tutoring, associated remedial models and other forms of support. That’s why advocates are pushing for AB1705 to be paired with a budget investment supporting implementation.
But the solution is not remedial classes. If colleges cannot identify students who benefit from these courses, they should not continue to enroll students in them. It is AB1705 standard, and it is reasonable.
Opponents claim to protect students’ “choice” to take remedial classes, but students are not asking for choices that make them less likely to achieve their goals. AB1705 is supported by the California Community Colleges Student Senate, UC Student Association, Students Making a Change, and other student-led organizations. I urge policy makers to join them.
Katie Hern is an English professor at Skyline College and co-founder of the California Acceleration Project, a faculty-led initiative founded in 2010 to help community colleges transform remediation.