Paul Steenhausen recalls when his brother, a California high school teacher, asked a failing student what, precisely, he planned to do with his life. “And the kid said, 'Oh I’ll go to Crafton Hills,' ” the local community college.
“A lot of kids in high school don’t know that there are standards at a community college and they certainly don’t know how they match up,” says Steenhausen, a senior fiscal and policy analyst at the nonpartisan California’s Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), which released a report Monday on improving remedial education in the 109-institution California Community College System.
“While they are all welcome to attend a community college -- there are no admissions standards based on high school performance -- they’re not going to go very far and they’re certainly not going to get a degree or transfer unless they address these basic skills deficiencies.”
The report addresses structural changes that could improve remedial, or “basic skills” education, throughout California's community college system, finding, for instance, a need to better “signal” college readiness standards to high school students. The report comes amid lots of effort and millions in new funding for improving instruction in remedial math, English and English as a Second Language throughout California, with a focus, for instance, on trying innovative new teaching techniques.
The colleges face an uphill battle. The report finds that the community college system offered basic skills instruction to more than 600,000 students in 2006-7. The success rates are "generally low." For instance, in terms of persistence, about half of students enrolled in credit-bearing basic skills math, English and ESL courses in the fall do not return to college the subsequent fall, the report finds.
The report also finds that only 60 percent of students enrolled in credit-bearing remedial English courses obtain a C or better (the success rates for math and ESL are 50 and 75 percent, respectively). And less than 10 percent of noncredit basic skills students ever complete one credit-bearing course applicable toward a degree (the report includes the caveat, however, that "an unknown number of noncredit students" – some ESL students, for instance -- never aspired to that goal).
“What this report takes a look at are a lot of policies that colleges individually can’t change. The system as a whole and/or the legislature has to make those changes in order to untie their hands,” said Steenhausen, who wrote the LAO document. Among the report's recommendations: change the state statute so that students who test into remedial math or English are required to take those courses in the first semester. (Currently, placement test results are, under state law, nonbinding. More than a third of students determined to be in need of basic skills courses choose not to enroll.)
The report also suggests developing a standard, statewide community college placement test, based on questions from existing California Standards Tests (used at the K-12 level). And it suggests expanding California State University’s Early Assessment Program, which provides high school juniors with an indication of whether their academic performance is up to university standards, to be of use to prospective community college students as well.
Lastly, as many basic skills students never receive mandated counseling services, the LAO recommends amending a state law requiring that districts spend at least 50 percent of their general operating budget on in-classroom instruction. Analysts recommend that counseling expenditures should be counted toward instructional costs, “to give community colleges fiscal flexibility to address the counseling needs of their students,” Steenhausen said.
"While the state and community colleges are investing a significant amount of time and money in basic skills education, we believe that substantial advancements can only come about if [California's community college system] changes its policies to promote a more effective delivery of services," the report's conclusion states.
“Most all of these are areas that we are already looking at," says Carole Bogue-Feinour, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the California Community College System. "Yes, we do recognize that the course success rates need to be increased," she says, adding that some colleges have already begun to see improvements in their internal data since the statewide "Basic Skills Initiative" began in 2006.
A task force is looking at assessment and placement, including the question of whether colleges should mandate remedial coursework based on test scores, Bogue-Feinour says. And the system just completed a series of regional workshops focused on improving instruction in basic skills, including through the use of learning communities.
“What we really need to do is look at how we can integrate closely those support services, including counseling, with these instructional programs," Bogue-Feinour explains. “A lot of these things that [the LAO] mentions in here, we are addressing and coming to terms with.”