Understanding and Improving Student Access and Success

ASCCC Treasurer and Guided Pathways Task Force Chair

Colleges began experimenting with more equitable placement practices for English, reading, and mathematics or quantitative reasoning courses as early as fall 2015 in response to the Multiple Measures Assessment Project. In October 2017, Governor Brown signed AB 705 (Irwin, 2017) into law. The overarching intent of the law was to close equity gaps in access and success in transfer-level English, mathematics including college-level, and English as a Second Language (ESL) courses. Statewide, faculty opinion was divided regarding the bill. However, now that AB 705 has been signed into law and incorporated into California Education Code §78213, colleges must implement the law in ways that best serve their students. Colleges were given until fall 2019 to fully implement the requirements of AB 705, but some institutions implemented AB 705 at some level as early as fall 2018. As of fall 2019, all 114 colleges have fully implemented AB 705 with various placement practices and student support programs. Implementation for ESL is in the beginning stages with full implementation planned for fall 2020.

A number of reports have been published regarding early AB 705 implementation. [1] To properly understand this information, faculty and other college staff must recognize the fine line between an objective research report and a report that is provided to influence or support policy. A research report provides, or at least attempts to provide, information and analyses on all of the available data; whether or not they support the project under examination, both favorable and unfavorable outcomes are adequately analyzed. The first set of full-scale data on student access and success regarding AB 705 implementation will be available at the end of the fall 2019 term, with data on throughput available at the end of the spring 2020 term. Local academic senates should support the expertise of discipline experts and counselors, working with research teams to carefully and thoughtfully examine all of the data and make needed adjustments to not only maximize throughput but optimize student success.

Early reports show an increase in the numbers of students with access to transfer-level English and mathematics courses. More students are passing these courses, but more students are also failing. While preliminary results demonstrate equity gaps closing for student access to transfer-level English and mathematics courses, which is promising indeed, equity gaps are increasing in regard to student success. The year-over-year increase in the numbers of students receiving substandard grades in transfer-level courses has more than doubled from fall 2017 to fall 2018. Some reports have characterized the percentages of unsuccessful performances as minimal; for example, a recent article in EdSource noted that “the number of students withdrawing from the transfer- level English and math courses increased only 1 percentage point from 2017 to 2018” (Smith, 2019). However, when one considers the tens of thousands of students who enroll in transfer-level English and mathematics each semester, even a one percentage point increase indicates a significant number of students. These results will affect student financial aid eligibility, academic standing, and retention. Moreover, such grades remain on student transcripts when they transfer. Thus, in spite of the increased raw numbers of successful students, the corresponding increase in students receiving substandard grades and withdrawing cannot be viewed as acceptable losses. The positive outcomes should definitely be celebrated, but the unsuccessful outcomes indicate very real issues with some of the implementation of AB 705 and should be viewed as opportunities for improvement that must be addressed sooner rather than later. This process is all part of the continuous cycle of improvement, a required component of the accreditation standards.

The California Community College System serves the largest and most diverse student population in the nation. With colleges now in the third year of the five-year California Community Colleges Guided Pathways Award Program, implementation of guided pathways frameworks is at various stages among the 114 colleges participating. The colleges must provide pathways that meet the needs of their student populations. Pathways established for AB 705 implementation should be integrated into the colleges’ guided pathways frameworks, as placement falls under Pillar II of guided pathways, “Helping Students Choose and Enter a Path.” Getting students on the right path is crucial to helping them to “Stay on the Path,” which is Pillar III, and is necessary to “Ensure Learning,” which is Pillar IV. Faculty and others working to design and establish robust guided pathways frameworks should be working with their local academic senates to develop placement and support practices that ensure all students the best opportunity to meet their self-determined goals.

In anticipation of mixed outcomes from legislation and initiatives such as AB 705, guided pathways, and the Student Centered Funding Formula, the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges and the Research and Planning Group have partnered to encourage and support faculty and researchers to collaborate as they examine and refine their placement and support practices. Faculty and researchers will be taking a deeper dive into the data, collecting and evaluating qualitative data along with the quantitative data. Faculty such as discipline experts and counselors need support from the academic senates at their colleges to modify placement practices early on that will provide the best access and success opportunities for their student populations, with the goal of closing equity gaps and reducing unintended consequences.


Smith, A. (2019, September 27). More California community college students entering, passing transfer-level math and English as result of landmark law. EdSource. Retrieved from https://edsource.org/2019/more-california-community-college-students-en…

1. See, for example, the Research and Planning Group’s Access, Enrollment, and Success in Transfer-Level English and Math in the California Community College System (September 2019) at https://rpgroup.org/Portals/0/Documents/Projects/MultipleMeasures/Publi…, the Campaign for College Opportunity’s Getting There: Are California Community Colleges Maximizing Student Completion of Transfer-Level Math and English? (September 2019) at https://collegecampaign.org/portfolio/getting-there/, and the Public Policy Institute of California’s What Happens When Colleges Broaden Access to Transfer-Level Courses? Evidence from California’s Community Colleges (October 2019) at https://www.ppic.org/publication/what-happens-when-colleges-broaden-acc…