In October 2017, Governor Brown signed AB 705 (Irwin) into law and fundamentally changed how assessment, placement, and basic skills instruction would happen in the California community colleges. At the time of the law’s signing, no one really knew how it would be implemented and what the impacts would be on colleges. While many unanswered questions still remain, we now have a much better sense of what colleges are required to do and the different options that they have available as they implement the law locally.
Placement in Mathematics and English
AB 705 requires colleges to use high school performance data—overall GPA, courses taken, or course grades—to be the primary measure when placing students, if transcript data is available. If official transcript data is not available, colleges can use self-reported information that can be collected by CCCApply or as part of a guided self-placement process.
The California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office and the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges published a joint memo on July 10, 2018 that outlined default placement for transfer-level composition, statistics and liberal arts mathematics, and business and STEM mathematics courses. All of these default placement recommendations require colleges to place transfer-directed students with an 11th grade high school GPA—no matter what that GPA may be—into transfer-level courses unless the college can demonstrate that placing the students into a pre-transfer level course gives them at least as good of a chance of passing a transfer-level course in one year.
For any student without transcript data, colleges can use guided self-placement to place students into courses. At its meeting on September 7, 2018, the ASCCC Executive Committee approved three documents for distribution related to guided self-placement and steps that colleges might consider including in their local processes. No statewide guidelines have been created for guided self-placement, so each college may develop a process that is designed to meet the needs of its own student population. The Executive Committee believes that several specific steps of guided self-placement would benefit all students. Those steps include career counseling, identifying a major or metamajor, clarifying the student’s educational goals, and reviewing the coursework that the student has previously completed.
A Year and the Clock
AB 705 requires colleges to maximize the likelihood that students enter and complete a transfer-level course in mathematics and English in one year. For the purposes of AB 705, one year is defined as two semesters or three quarters. Therefore, colleges cannot place a transfer-directed student more than one level below transfer except in some limited circumstances.
Many questions have arisen about the clock and whether colleges will be penalized if a student does not pass a transfer-level course within one year. Colleges are required to develop placement systems and curricular sequences that align with legal requirements. If a student chooses to enroll in a basic skills course that prevents him or her from completing a transfer-level course in one year or if the student does not pass the transfer-level course within the one year window, the college will not be held responsible. The college cannot guarantee that student will pass, and colleges have limits as to how much they can control student behavior.
The default placement rules mention that concurrent support is recommended or strongly recommended for students with a GPA below 2.6 in English, 2.9 in statistics or liberal arts math, or 2.6 in STEM, as well as for STEM students whose high school math course was below the level of calculus. Concurrent support could include redesigning existing courses to increase the number of hours in the classroom and embedding the support, creating either credit or noncredit co-requisite support courses, or increasing access to learning centers, supplemental instruction, directed learning activities, and tutoring. Some of these options already exist at many campuses and will only need to be adjusted or expanded to support the new course placement structure. Other options will require the development of new curriculum, which means having those new and revised courses passed in time for the next college catalog.
Questions have also arisen regarding the use of co-requisites, and colleges will need to determine if such courses make sense for their students and how they will be implemented. Co-requisite support can be offered as credit or noncredit courses and, per the FAQ published in August, both versions can be required if the college can demonstrate that the co-requisite increases the likelihood that a student will pass the transfer-level course. Whether colleges require co-requisites, whether they choose to use credit, noncredit, or both, and how many units or hours each co-requisite course contains are all local decisions, and colleges must determine the best ways to serve their specific student populations. The majority of community college students are attending college part-time, and co-requisites could increase a 4-5 unit course to a 6-8 units. If a student takes 12 units and a math or English course makes up more than 50% of those units, the student could lose financial aid eligibility if he or she has to drop that course or does not pass it at the end of the semester. This possibility might lead colleges to consider noncredit co-requisites, and using those types of courses certainly has advantages, such as saving students money and not causing them to accumulate additional units, but a noncredit co-requisite still represents additional hours that a student must spend in the classroom and does not count toward the number of units a student must take to maintain financial aid eligibility. None of these potential challenges means that colleges should not implement the co-requisite model, which has been shown to be effective, but colleges should be aware that the model may not be the best choice for every student. Colleges will want to implement multiple types of concurrent support that will allow all students to be as successful as possible.
Elimination of Basic Skills
When the default placement rules were published, some colleges interpreted them to mandate that all basic skills courses should be removed from college catalogs. Even if a college is not able to place as many students into basic skills courses, some students may prefer to take a basic skills course and some students will need basic skills courses. Students might make this choice for many reasons. They might have been away from school for so long that they do not feel comfortable going straight into a transfer-level course. They might be unable to commit to the number of hours required for the transfer-level course with a required co-requisite, but they may feel comfortable taking the transfer-level course alone. Taking a basic skills course is not the only way to address issues like these, but colleges should consider keeping the option open to students who wish to choose it.
Coupled with the possible deletion of basic skills courses, questions have been asked about whether non-transferable prerequisites should be removed. This question is difficult to answer today, and the answer might change in another year. CSU Executive Order 1100 removed the explicit requirement that any course approved for CSU GE Breadth Area B4 must have a prerequisite that traced back to intermediate algebra, but some majors at the CSU are still looking at whether they want to create an intermediate algebra requirement. The IGETC standards allow for alternative prerequisites for statistics, but other quantitative reasoning courses do not appear to have this flexibility. Additionally, changes to prerequisites are considered a substantial change by many universities and may trigger a re-evaluation of course-to-course articulation agreements. Finally, the prerequisites on existing C-ID descriptors have not been removed, so colleges that delete such prerequisites could lose their C-ID designations, and approval of their Associate Degrees for Transfer could be impacted. As of today, too many unknowns remain for colleges to start deleting prerequisites, but this situation might change in the near future. Colleges are encouraged to wait for more definitive information stating that deleting pre-transfer prerequisites will not carry negative impacts.
The July memo made clear that AB 705 is a call for colleges to develop innovative ways of serving the needs of students. Implementation of different types of concurrent support is one type of innovation, but many colleges have discussed other alternatives. These ideas include creating redesigned basic skills courses, creating stretch courses, integrating supplemental instruction, or embedding tutors in the classroom. Each of these options has advantages and disadvantages, but colleges might consider them as possibilities that would support the needs of some students. Faculty should have discussions about all of the options available and which ones they would like to try. No one knows exactly what will work for each student and each community, so colleges should be open to trying different options and be willing to make additional changes after fall 2019.
We certainly know more about what AB 705 means for our colleges than we did a year ago, but many questions still need to be answered. We hope that some of those questions will be answered before fall 2019, such as whether colleges will have access to transcript data for all current high school students, but others might take years to answer, such as whether all basic skills instruction should be removed from the community colleges. The Academic Senate will continue to work with the Chancellor’s Office to ensure that colleges have the maximum amount of flexibility possible under the law, allowing them to develop new strategies to support the needs of all students.