(In 2013, the Academic Senate Executive Committee approved a project to record and preserve the history of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. The April 2017 Rostrum contains an article that explains the intent and structure of this project. The project has been stalled several times, but it has not been abandoned. The following article was written as an aspect of the history project.)
The passage of Assembly Bill 705 in 2017 raised many questions among faculty regarding the preparation of students in the areas of communication and computation and what we expect of them. Such debates are not new: issues involving placement, prerequisites, the definition of basic skills, and other related topics have been common in the California Community College System for many years. One particularly difficult and prolonged debate connected to these issues involved the raising of the associate degree requirements in English and mathematics, a contentious discussion that was finally resolved with the passage of new Title 5 language in 2007 but that occupied the attention of faculty for many years prior to that event.
One of the earliest Rostrum articles on this topic was published in October 2003, when ASCCC Executive Committee member Mark Snowhite noted, “During the last two Senate plenary sessions, there has been spirited debate over whether to raise statewide requirements (Title 5) in mathematics and English for the associates degrees.”  At the time, the graduation requirements for an associate degree included a course in elementary algebra and a course no more than one level below transfer-level English composition.
Snowhite noted that those who favored raising the requirements argued, among other points, that “elementary algebra and English composition one level below transfer-level English composition are unquestionably high-school-level courses and that to offer a college degree for high-school level work undermines the value of that degree” and that “offering a two-year college degree that appears to require less than college-level course work could vitiate our efforts to convince the public that we deserve to be considered a full partner in post-secondary education.” Today, most members of California’s higher education community tend to take as a given the important role of the community colleges in post-secondary education, but in 2003, just fifteen years after the passage of AB 1725 in 1988 that sought in part to professionalize community colleges and prior to the cooperative intersegmental efforts of C-ID, that status was, as Snowhite indicated, far less fully established.
On the other side of the debate, Snowhite noted, those in opposition to raising the requirements maintained, among other arguments, that “raising standards could, in some cases, remove the likelihood that many overburdened and underprepared students would obtain their degrees, especially important to people who are the first in their families to attend college” and that “without far better support systems in all of our colleges, those with limited English proficiencies would be unfairly impeded in reaching their goals, as would those who have struggled with mathematics.” These concerns regarding underprepared and underrepresented students and insufficient resources to support them, which have been significant aspects of more recent debates over AB 705, were thus no less a concern in 2003 as the system struggled with what should be expected of its students who were most vulnerable and in greatest need of extra assistance and how best to help them reach their goals.
Mark Wade Lieu, president of the ASCCC from 2007 to 2009, recalls the debate similarly but with some additional details: “The real discussions occurred around raising mathematics to intermediate algebra. There were actually two camps. One camp was the group that didn’t see that students needed mathematics beyond elementary algebra; it was also frequently brought up that intermediate algebra would disproportionately affect certain groups of students and prevent them from completing degrees. The other camp actually wanted to push for a transfer-level mathematics graduation requirement such as statistics. Their argument was two-fold—that higher levels of mathematics fostered the analytical skills needed for a wide range of studies, and that a college degree should include transfer-level mathematics.”
In order to guide local academic senates in their discussions of these issues, the 2003-2004 ASCCC Curriculum Committee compiled a document titled Issues and Options for Associate Degree Levels in Mathematics and English, which was published in Fall 2004.  Richard Mahon, a member of that Curriculum Committee, described the process by saying, “We sought to better inform our research through hearings held in Glendale and Oakland in January and February. We organized discussions among faculty and delegates at the fall and spring Plenary Sessions as well as at the summer Curriculum Institute. From very early in our process, we recognized that our greatest challenge would be assembling quantitative data that would help local senates and delegates reflect on the issue in an informed and thoughtful manner.”  This thoughtful and careful effort to frame the issues fairly led an additional year of further debate, perhaps more informed but no less contentious.
Former ASCCC President Jane Patton was the chair of the 2003-04 Curriculum Committee that researched the issue and wrote the paper. In March 2004, Patton wrote a Rostrum article summarizing the committee’s findings and noting, “Faculty’s views are as mixed as ever. Individual faculty within specific disciplines (including math and English) and across disciplines ring in on both sides, although regional and state English and math organizations have taken positions in favor of changing the regulations.” The article concludes by saying, “It is not surprising that these discussions have lasted for several years. The issues are important and faculty feelings are passionate.“  These observations demonstrate the difficult task that the committee, the ASCCC, and faculty as a whole faced in working though the many concerns and perspectives that were raised in the debate. Nevertheless, at the Spring 2005 ACCCC Plenary Session the delegates passed resolutions 9.01 and 9.02 to recommend raising the requirements.
Reflecting back more recently on the experience of exploring the changes, Patton recalls, “There were faculty—individuals or groups—and some administrators who worked against the efforts. And the Campaign for College Opportunity. It was a challenge too working with the Chancellor’s Office, but we were able to reason with them. And the same with the Board of Governors.”  In August 2007, years of effort finally came to fruition, as the Board of Governors approved changes to Title 5 §55063 that raised the requirements for an associates degree to successful completion of “an English course at the level of the course typically known as freshman composition” and “a mathematics course at the level of the course typically known as Intermediate Algebra.”
The impacts of these changes could be characterized in various ways. Many would claim that they increased the integrity and credibility of associates degrees and that they made students better prepared for the workplace. Lieu also notes that “clearly the raising of the graduation requirements resulted in a greater focus on basic skills in order to help students succeed in the associated classes. This, in turn, prompted a greater focus on what people did in response (and the Poppy Copy) and how these efforts did, or did not, help students. This led to an interest in acceleration, the creation of alternative classes in mathematics, and co-requisite classes.”
During this period, I began attending ASCCC plenary sessions and events. I recall the debate over the English and math requirements as the first truly vigorous and sometimes combative state-level issue that I experienced. We have all seen many other controversial issues in the years since, some perhaps even more contentious, but these discussions were the first time that I was able to see the degree to which the truly committed, capable faculty that attend Academic Senate events can and do fight for what they see as the best interests of students, how they can reach such very different positions in an issue, and how they can eventually come together to make an informed and collegial decision.
The raising of the English and mathematics requirements reflects on ASCCC history in various ways. The lengthy period over which the changes were debated and the extensive process that was involved demonstrate the Academic Senate’s tradition and practice of careful, deliberative, and inclusive discussion before reaching decisions. The changes were initiated and driven by faculty effort and input, and thus they also demonstrate one of the ASCCC’s many successes in impacting state-level policy and standards on behalf of faculty. The debates were difficult and extensive, but in the end the Academic Senate’s recommendation was implemented and became regulatory language to the benefit of the community college system and the many students it serves.
1. Snowhite, Mark. “Revisiting Associates Degree Standards.” Rostrum October 2003. https://www.asccc.org/content/revisiting-associates-degree-standards.
2. Email to the author may 21, 2019.
3. This document is available at https://www.asccc.org/papers/issues-and-options-associate-degree-levels….
4. Mahon, Richard. “Graduation Requirements in English and Mathematics with Apologies to Andrew Marvell.” Rostrum March 2005. https://www.asccc.org/content/graduation-requirements-english-and-mathe…
5. Patton, Jane. “AA/AS Degree Requirements.” Rostrum March 2004. https://www.asccc.org/content/aaas-degree-requirements
6. Email to the author May 21, 2019