Moving Forward with Basic Skills Strategies

Chair, Basic Skills Committee

The Basic Skills Initiative has taught us a lot of important things about our profession and about the students we serve in our classrooms. We know the percentage of first time students with basic skills needs are over 75%. But how much basic skills work do they need? In other words, we know the breadth, but what is the depth of those needs? The work with CB 21 rubrics and recoding basic skills courses has provided a great deal of information about the depth of basic skills needs. A recent study by researcher Craig Hayward at Cabrillo College, using a representative sample of 23 California community colleges, reveals a sample of both the breadth and depth of basic skills needs. The table below indicates the levels at which our students are assessing into English (writing), mathematics, reading, and English as a Second Language (ESL). Of the 76,138 students assessed in English, 42% were more than two levels below transfer in English. Of the 77, 231 students assessed in mathematics, over 64% were two levels or more below transfer (this means they assessed into algebra or lower). How do we meet this depth of basic skills needs?

Is the best strategy to have students take eighth grade or high school level mathematics and English over again at a community college? Most students covered this material in their previous schooling. Why are they still assessing low?

Do we respond with a one-answer-fits-all, such as “Take two aspirin and call me in the morning?” Unfortunately that has often been our response. Take this assessment test; now go back and take these courses all over again. This may take a semester or more likely a year if the majority are two levels below transfer. Is it possible to finesse our thinking, to engage the student needs using a more diagnostic analysis and invest resources effectively?

Students come to our colleges with many aspirations and realistically with many basic skills needs. But no student wants to major in basic skills or to devote a year of college reviewing and repeating what they could not catch in their previous education. The truth is most of our students need some help in some area of basic skills, but many do not need an entire course repeated. Is relegating students to repeat an entire course the equivalent of take two aspirins and see me when you are done? The truth is, and this is a shocking and unacceptable truth, only approximately 50% of those that go back and take those basic skills courses will succeed in them. We definitely need to have those classes available and to meet basic skills needs in a planned and curricular way, but are there ways to explicitly address basic skills needs rather than courses as a whole? Courses are designed to build or scaffold knowledge so there are situations where the entire course is a necessity. But does every student with basic skills needs have to take an entire course?

What we have learned from the Basic Skills Initiative is that we cannot only view these needs in chunks of semester- or quarter-long courses. We need to have a better way to finesse our assessment of students’ needs and then to help them gain specific skills. The Academic Senate regional Basic Skills Initiative training has highlighted some of the very effective alternative ways to help students gain specific skills while continuing on their college level trajectory. There are many creative interventions being used throughout California community colleges. Here we are highlighting a few very successful interventions, particularly because in the midst of budget cuts if we lose all summer school or all short term courses or greatly reduce our innovative success strategies in the name of saving money, we will be closing the door to the future success of our students, the majority of whom have basic skills needs. Here are three great ideas:

Discrete skills can be developed and students reassessed in summer accelerated programs. Pasadena City College, among others, has a summer program that catapults students through specific basic mathematics skills, called Summer JAM. The compressed and high energy program engages students and ignites the rest of their college career.

Chaffey College has Directed Learning Activities (DLAs) that address distinct basic skills needs as they relate to a particular discipline, for example mathematics activities for automotive students. These DLAs are required of students, outside of class time, in order to catch up to relevant mathematics skills required in a particular course. The student success center provides specific mathematics DLAs developed by the instructors that help students address needs while continuing in their chosen field of study.

Bakersfield College, modeling a concept from Butte College, developed a series of Critical Academic Skills workshops (CAS). These workshops are provided regularly after the semester begins. A little over 50% of the participants are students that faculty specifically directed to the workshops. A sample of the topics include: Colons and Semi-colons, Mastering Spelling, Thesis and Topic Sentences, Repairing Run-ons, Fixing Fragments, Punctuation Perils, Comma Crimes, Appalling Apostrophes, Subject-Verb Agreement, Plagiarism, Test Taking Skills, Attacking Words in Word Problems, Making Multiplication Math Facts Memorable, Preparing Powerful Power Points.

The latest basic skills supplemental Accountability Reporting for Community Colleges (ARCC) report indicates that we do not have adequate basic skills sections—meeting only about 24% of the need statewide. During this budget crisis, basic skills credit and noncredit sections have been reduced at many colleges. Where do those students go? One way to continue serving our students is to reserve the basic skills course sections for those that really need the whole course, and to provide other short-term alternatives for students to pick up discrete skills, get refreshers, or apply the basic skills directly to their field of study. What is your college doing? For more information, look at the Basic Skills Handbook available at