In 2006, Marjorie Blen had to take remedial classes in math and English at Contra Costa Community College in California. The courses cost him time and money, but did not earn him transfer-level credit to a degree.
As Blen struggled to balance work and study, she said those classes became daunting semester after semester, feeling more like a trap than a ladder. In 2012, Blen left Contra Costa, still without a degree.
“I didn’t understand why I was stuck in remedial classes, but another friend wasn’t when we grew up together, taking the same high school classes and getting the same grades,” Blen said, who is a first generation Latinx student. . “Then I got pregnant and became a statistic: a young Latina with a kid and no college degree. As a kid in the Bay Area trying to raise a kid, I couldn’t understand what was happening to me.
Shut out of job opportunities while raising a family, Blen re-enrolled in the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) community college system in 2017. Again, she was placed in remedial classes, but this time Blen pushed back.
Blen became involved with Students Making a Change (SMAC), a student-led advocacy group at CCSF calling for remedial education reform. Through SMAC, Blen discovered a state law called Assembly Bill 705 (AB 705) that passed in 2017, the same year she started at CCSF.
AB 705 prohibits community colleges in the state from requiring students to take remedial courses in English or math regardless of their GPA and high school coursework, as well as determining that such students are ” very unlikely to succeed” in transfer-credit courses.
Prior to AB 705, approximately 80% of incoming students at California community colleges started out by taking remedial classes. Their transfer and graduation rates were about half those of students who started transfer-level courses. Black and Latino students like Blen were also disproportionately enrolled in remedial classes.
Many experts and advocates point out that these remedial classes were intended to help students but ended up hurting them while deepening racial inequalities.
Armed with the AB 705 in 2017, Blen pressed her university to let her take a transfer-level maths course.
“I can tell you this: I don’t know why they’re blocking students from taking these classes,” Blen said. “The teacher was very supportive and flexible without changing the objectives of the course. During the final exam of this class, I didn’t have a babysitter for my child, and the teacher said that I could bring my child to sit in the hallway while I took my final exam. I ended up with a B.”
As of fall 2019, community colleges across the state were required to comply with AB 705. Proponents say gains have been made. One-year completion rates for transfer-level English courses rose from 49% in fall 2015 to 67% in fall 2019. And completion rates for transfer-level math courses rose from 26% to 50% over the same period.
However, AB 705 has been implemented unevenly and remains racially divided. A December 2020 Report of Public Advocates and the California Acceleration Project (CAP), two research and advocacy groups, found that community colleges serving more than 2,000 black students were more than twice as likely to be low implementers of AB 705 in the fall of 2020, the second year of the law taking effect.
“We found that AB 705 was doing a lot to break down the barrier of mandatory remediation, which was our status quo, but there were gray areas so colleges that didn’t want to stop remedial classes continued to enroll large numbers of students in these courses,” said Dr. Katie Hern, co-founder of CAP, a faculty-led network to reform remedial teaching and increase school completion rates.
Hern is also an English teacher at Skyline College, a community college in California. She used to teach remedial English classes, but when she looked more closely at the data, she realized something was wrong.
This week, advocates are calling for reforms to strengthen the implementation of AB 705. On Tuesday, the California Assembly Higher Education Committee heard arguments on Assembly Bill 1705 (AB 1705). The proposed legislation includes specifics that community colleges must enroll students in math and English courses where they have the greatest likelihood of meeting graduation and transfer requirements.
However, some opponents of AB 1705 say the bill does not include enough academic support for faculty to help new waves of students entering transfer level rather than remedial courses. That could create another problem, critics say.
“We believe additional academic support is needed to make this bill work,” said Evan Hawkins, executive director of the Faculty Association of California Community Colleges (FACC), who did not take a position on AB 705 but s opposes AB 1705. that this bill is much more prescriptive in its legislative language about what colleges can and cannot do than AB 705.”
Hawkins pointed out that many FACC members are concerned that “we’re being asked to do more with less.” Instructors are expected to reach a wider range of students, but without more funding for smaller class sizes or to embed tutors in classes to meet student needs. He added that if the bill included rather than rejected such funding, then the FACC could decide to support AB 1705.
“People on the other side of this issue may say we want to return to the status quo before AB 705, and we’re not,” Hawkins added. “Our position is more nuanced than that. We don’t want to go back to the way things were before. But we are afraid that this will lead to the failure of our faculty.
Yet since AB 705 took effect, Hern pointed out that 60% of students in fall 2019 who started math at the transfer level passed within a year. But only 14% of students who started a remedial course in the same semester went on to transfer-level math.
“It’s true that some students come out of high school unprepared for college,” Hern said. “It’s just true. But what is also true is that these students are very capable. And what we need to do is help them succeed, but not in a structure that puts them behind other students, which is what remedial classes do.
Now, Hern and his fellow advocates are promoting associate classes as a more effective path than remedial classes. Co-requisites provide additional support for students, such as peer tutors or more time with the instructor. Yet students still get credit for the course.
When asked how much money she had spent on remedial education over the years, Marjorie Blen replied: “I would own a house now.” Today, she’s the director of SMAC, educating students about transfer-level and credit courses so others don’t fall into the same cycle she did over a decade ago.
In May, Blen will graduate from San Francisco State University with her bachelor’s degree after transferring to the institution. She then considers higher education, which she would have “never dreamed of before”.
As for AB 1705, supporters and opponents are watching the sequel closely.
“We’re hoping AB 1705 will come out of the Higher Education Committee and then it will move into appropriations,” said Jetaun Stevens, senior counsel at Public Advocates. “We’re just running the bill and will continue to advocate to make sure people understand how important this is for students.”
Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at [email protected]