Defining Basic Skills: It's Harder Than You Think!


In Spring 2005, we asked those present at a plenary session breakout to give the definitions they have of various terms: basic skills, remedial, developmental, pre-collegiate, college level, and transfer. It was amazing the differences there were. We also presented the definitions used by UC and CSU. We then thought that we would take the responses back, look them over, and arrive at some consensus. How nave we were! That difficulty became the focus of our presentation at this fall plenary session. We gave the results received in the spring, reaffirmed the usage of the terms at UC and CSU, and discussed the difficulty of defining the terms at community colleges, both systemwide and within individual institutions. We were uncertain where to go from there. Then a faculty member suggested a table showing how the terms are defined by the different institutions and by Title 5, as well as by the national associations for mathematics and English. The results are presented on the following page, including definitions of terms used in higher education and denoting the level at which courses are taught.

The major problem in defining these terms is that different community colleges have different courses that apply to their degrees; that, in turn, affects the definition of basic skills (below degree applicable), pre-collegiate (below degree applicable) and college level (degree applicable). If Title 5 changes are proposed at a future plenary session to raise the graduation requirements for mathematics and/or English, some of these problems will resolve themselves. However, we hope that these tables clarify the differences in the usage of these terms and that they permit your faculty to have a more meaningful discussion of basic skills at the local level in preparation for our statewide discussion at the Spring 2005 Plenary Session.

Some other interesting developments in this search for definitions concern matters of funding credit courses as opposed to noncredit courses and funding of basic skills courses. If some noncredit courses are to be funded at the same level of credit courses in the future, will more basic skills courses be taught as noncredit? Also, if more courses become basic skills courses due to a Title 5 change in graduation requirements, will that open up more funding opportunities for them as basic skills courses? With these questions, we return to our original question: how hard can it be?