Note: The following article is not an official statement of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. The article is intended to engender discussion and consideration by local colleges.
The rapid and extreme pendulum swing from the Basic Skills Initiative (BSI) that began in 2006 to the full implementation of Assembly Bill 705 (Irwin, 2017) in the fall of 2019 has swept away advantages for a vast number of students even as it has helped others. The unintended negative consequences of AB 705 could have been eliminated by blending the best of AB 705 and BSI together with common sense.
The BSI created foundational classes that prepared students for higher math or qualifying tests such as the ASVAB military test or TEAS nursing test as well as satisfying other goals such as self-improvement and job advancement. In contrast, AB 705 focused almost exclusively on increasing the number of transfer students. While equity may have been the goal of AB 705, the bill devalued diversity and the role community colleges have traditionally played for returning students. AB 705 was based on an unrealistic tunnel vision involving expectations that all students are able to earn degrees within two years or even that they all want to earn degrees. The needs of students across California vary dramatically, and the implementation of AB 705 has created inequitable situations for students in a variety of circumstances.
After failing a transfer class like algebra or statistics three times, a returning student is more likely to become resigned to surrendering and accepting a low-paying, menial job. Single, working parents are often not in a position to complete transfer math and English classes within one year. A recently-released parolee pushed to enroll in 15 units of classes, including a transfer math or English class, is in many cases being set up for failure. Often, struggling students are insulted by the common suggestion that they go to an adult school and take a developmental class. Students perceive this suggestion to be demeaning as well as a step backwards; they know adult schools are known for less rigor and prestige than community colleges. In pursuit of a better life, once excited and hopeful students are likely to disappear entirely from the education system and resort to former dissatisfying or unproductive lifestyles.
Yuba College instructor John Almy (2017), author of “The Fast Lane to Nowhere,” admired the dedicated instructors of the acceleration movement and their goals but also stated, “You do not accelerate people who do not know the basics.” AB 705 monetarily rewards colleges for increasing the number of students who complete transfer English and math classes within one year. Almy legitimately questions whether these incentives will contribute to the “bogus sea of diplomas and degrees we already have.” With concern for job security and their families, instructors may succumb to subtle or direct pressure to increase passing rates by diluting content. Diluting content invites another unintended consequence of AB 705 to surface — the eventual decline of a college’s reputation.
Many claims are being made and will continue to be made about the effectiveness of AB 705. With the current emphasis on teaching statistics, one would be hypocritical to blindly accept claims and conclusions. In colleges where BSI classes are no longer offered, no appropriate control will be present against which to compare new classes and procedures resulting from AB 705. Schools are monetarily rewarded when students complete classes quickly. This practice may enable schools to artificially boast of high success rates, but in reality, these schools may actually be taking away needed options for underprepared students. Success rates resulting from superficial definitions of success diminish the real, long-term value of classes and contribute to students’ poor self-esteem, poor performance, and failure in the workplace.
By minimizing (or eliminating) funding for nontransferable math and English classes, the Chancellor’s Office for California Community Colleges subtly encourages colleges to delete these classes from curriculum programs. Many innovative BSI classes had not yet reached their full potential. A relatively new BSI pre-STEM arithmetic class was taking root at one school; it was supported by testimonials from former students, and 264 students signed a petition of interest to take the class. This class was discontinued, along with all arithmetic and pre-algebra classes; even worse, the classes were deleted from the catalog, preventing students from even considering whether or not they needed these classes.
As the pendulum of change swings and proposals are made to promote and accelerate learning, modification (rather than the elimination of developmental classes) would be the most efficient path to take. Equitable learning would be better accomplished by respecting the diverse educational needs and goals of the unique communities in which students live. Colleges should remain acutely aware of the broad diversity within California, realizing the state is often recognized as the most diverse area in the nation.
The following suggestions may be useful for modifying courses and blending BSI with AB 705 implementation:
- Create an optional placement test to help students choose appropriate classes for their skill levels. To show compliance with AB 705, ask each student to sign a statement asserting his or her enrollment in a developmental class or transfer classes was a choice, NOT a requirement.
- Retain optional sections of basic classes, especially a comprehensive foundational arithmetic class. In addition to its use in everyday life, arithmetic is the foundation for higher math classes and science classes. Arithmetic is often the gatekeeper preventing students from qualifying for programs and jobs.
- Promote equity by retaining and administratively financing a limited number of developmental classes.
- Promote student commitment and accountability by attaching units and financial aid to developmental, non-transferable classes.
- Enable students to decide how to best spend their financial aid. Print the balance of financial aid available to each student on grade reports.
Almy, J. (2017). Fast lane to nowhere. Inside Higher Ed. October 30. Retrieved from Inside Higher Ed Website: https://www.insidehighered.com/views/2017/10/30/why-colleges-shouldnt-a….