Defining "Basic Skills" - How Hard Can it Be?

March
2004
Mark Wade Lieu, Chair

At the 2003 Fall Plenary Session, the body passed a resolution calling for the Academic Senate to "develop definitions for commonly used terms for designating course level, such as `basic skills'." On the surface, defining the term "basic skills" seems to be quite straightforward. Most people would agree that "basic skills" is the designation we give to math and English courses that prepare our students for college-level work. However, the usefulness of this definition depends on our agreement of the definition of "college-level work, " and we soon find that such agreement is elusive. We define this term variously. One possible definition of "college-level work" hinges on its degree applicability. The rigor for a course that is degree applicable is spelled out in Title 5 Regulation, and curriculum committees are expected to consider these criteria when designating a course as degree applicable. However, the assignment of degree applicability varies across the state, and a course that is applicable towards the AA/AS degree in one college may not be in another, even if the course content of the two courses is essentially the same.

Another definition of "college-level work" might be based on whether a course is accepted for transfer to a UC or CSU campus. Unfortunately (at least as far as a universal definition is concerned), transferability is an inconsistent thing. Articulation of courses operates on a campus-by-campus basis. Therefore, there are variations between community colleges as to what is transferable and what is not. In addition, there are differences between what the CSUs accept for transfer from what UCs or independent colleges and universities do.

To add another wrinkle to the discussion, throw in English as a Second Language (ESL) courses. First, there is the confusion as to whether or not ESL is included under the basic skills umbrella. Most would argue that ESL differs from basic skills in that it is developmental, i.e., ESL students are developing language skills that they have never been exposed to before. Basic skills courses are, in contrast, remedial, i.e. they offer students a chance to relearn skills that they have been exposed to before. But because both prepare students for "college-level" work, ESL and basic skills are usually uttered in the same breath, further muddying any possible distinction.

At some institutions, ESL courses are in a sequence leading to basic skills English courses. As a result, basic skills courses are filled with ESL learners, so are these developmental or remedial courses? Usually, these courses are non-degree applicable. However, at some institutions, using the Title 5 criteria for rigor, curriculum committees have granted degree applicability to some ESL courses. Furthermore, some colleges have even articulated their ESL courses with a four-year institution. Therefore, in some colleges, ESL courses are by several definitions "college-level work" even though similar courses precede basic skills courses at other colleges.

The conclusion we come to, then, is that defining "basic skills" is not very easy after all. In addition, related terms such as "college-level," "remedial," and "developmental" are similarly difficult to define precisely. Yet, a common understanding of such terms is essential for discussion of basic skills across the state. The Basic Skills Committee invites you to attend its breakout session at the 2004 Spring Plenary Session to further the discussion for developing a common definition for such terms.

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