On October 13, 2017, English and math faculty across Pasadena City College (PCC) became absorbed with fear, confusion, or hope after hearing the news that a statewide education bill had been passed. Whether they supported it or not, they understood that a big change of curriculum was imminent.
California Governor Jerry Brown had signed into law AB 705, a bill that requires community colleges across California to amplify their students’ chances of completing transferable English and mathematics courses within the span of one year.
“There’s going to be a complete shift in the courses that we’re offering.” said Linda Hintzman, a Math 150 professor and Basic Skills Initiative coordinator.
Upon first hearing of the bill’s passing, Hintzman and her fellow colleagues regarded the situation as a big deal, given the drastic call for change. But as data surfaced surrounding the motivation behind AB 705, they became fascinated by the prospects of a higher and faster transfer and graduation rate, and a chance for equal opportunity amongst all students.
AB 705 serves to specify laws already established in the California Code of Regulations, stating that community colleges are prohibited from requiring students to enroll in prerequisite courses unless they are “highly unlikely to succeed” in transferable English and math courses.
“Its purpose is to benefit our students and more specifically those students that have been historically misrepresented, underserved and at a disadvantage,” said PCC English professor Carolina Espinoza Lopez.
How is PCC complying with AB 705? By eliminating prerequisites and developing a new placement system.
The lead up to AB 705 was due in part by the California Acceleration Project, which gained popularity when over 100 community colleges supported their initiative to increase transfer-level course completion, by reducing remedial courses, adding extra support courses, and reshaping the placement system. PCC is on the right track.
Starting in the Fall 2019 semester, students will begin or continue their math or English course sequence with only transfer-level, non-remedial courses. For those unfamiliar with PCC’s prerequisite courses and why they are often at issue, here’s a rundown.
Students that placed at the lowest level below transfer for math or English were originally, before Fall 2018, required to complete four math or two English prerequisites until they were eligible to enroll in transfer-level classes. It would have taken a math student four semesters just to complete the prerequisites, which are not transferable and do not offer credit.
As of Fall 2018, most of those courses are no longer provided at PCC. Math prerequisites that are two to four levels below transfer and English 400, two levels below transfer, have been eliminated from the curriculum.
This is PCC’s last year offering the remedial courses Math 131 (Intermediate Algebra), Math 150 (Quantitative Literacy II), and English 100 (Reading and Writing Skills), all of which are one level below transfer.
English as a Second Language (ESL) programs are also affected by AB 705. To maximize completion of transferable English courses, colleges are mandated to ensure that their ESL students “will enter and complete degree and transfer requirements in English within a timeframe of 3 years,” according to Part 1 of AB 705. The ESL Division must fully comply with AB 705 by 2020.
The bill also calls for a push in ESL pathway programs, allowing students to jump from their highest-level ESL course straight into transfer-level English. Colleges are given the option of developing an ESL course for credit that is analogous to transfer-level English. Since lower-level development English classes will no longer be provided at PCC, the ESL curriculum may be restructured to serve also as a substitute for the removed courses.
“The main issue that the bill is trying to address is that we’ve been placing students in developmental math and English with the intention of building up their skills so that they can be successful for transfer level.” said Hintzman. “But what the numbers really show us is that’s really not true.”
According to a study observing a cohort of PCC students enrolled in math and English programs from the Fall 2015 to the Spring 2017 semesters, only 5.4 percent of students in Math 450, four levels below transfer, completed transfer-level math in two years. Even in Math 125 or Math 250, which are collectively two levels below transfer, the number raises slightly to only 12 percent.
The numbers are different for transfer-level math courses; 84 percent of the students enrolled in these courses completed them within two years. For English, 82.3 percent of students enrolled in transfer-level composition completed the program within the two-year timeframe.
“We’ve identified skills that you would learn in, say, Intermediate Algebra that you needed to have to be successful in College Algebra,” Hintzman said. “Our error was in putting too much faith into Accuplacer and believing the test when it said you didn’t have those skills.”
Accuplacer is a nationwide college placement test previously used by PCC to designate students into appropriate math or English courses based on their results. Designed by the College Board in 1985, Accuplacer has remained controversial amongst students and faculty for not properly assessing students’ academic capabilities.
Last spring, the English Division voted to stop requiring for students to take the Accuplacer exam. Trisha Herrera, a full-time faculty member at PCC teaching English, explained PCC’s replacement for Accuplacer.
“AB 705 calls for the use of placement by multiple measures, such as high school GPA, not just the score of a single test, and the elimination of barriers to student success,” Herrera said. “It is my understanding that PCC has already started implementing placement by multiple measures, and we will continue doing so.”
The measures determine which classes are suitable for PCC students enrolling in math or English. They include high school grade point average, grades, and coursework.
After the complete removal of prerequisites and the addition of placement by multiple measures, more students are expected to complete transfer-level coursework within one year, but will they be ready?
Merris Beadle, a PCC student studying environmental engineering, believes that she would not perform as well academically if it were not for the prerequisites. Beadle has taken nine mathematics classes during her time at PCC, two of which were prerequisites. In high school, the highest level math course that she completed was Algebra, and at PCC she was placed into Math 131 (Intermediate Algebra), which she felt unprepared for.
“My teacher failed me by one percent,” Beadle said. “And she looked me in the face and said, ‘If you’re going to be an engineering major, you need to take [Math] 125 because you need the foundational information to be able to succeed in this class.’”
Beadle did end up enrolling in Math 125, one level lower than Math 131, and she credited her decision as being beneficial to her fundamental understanding of algebra. When she enrolled in Math 131 for the second time, the teachings were much clearer.
To accommodate for the loss of lower-level English and math courses, PCC has implemented the option for students to take corequisite classes alongside their transfer-level classes. This year, the English Division is offering 12 optional corequisite sections for English 1A.
An AB 705 student support group has been active since the law’s conception in 2017. Led by PCC faculty from the English, ESL, and Math Divisions, the group aims to research, develop, and communicate options for students to broaden their success in the affected subjects.
More recently, the English Writing Center has expanded to two locations, and they are now open to all PCC students.
PCC students have voiced their appreciation and concerns regarding the ousting of prerequisites.
Michelle Morillo is a student worker at the Writing Center, and she often comes across students taking remedial classes. The topic of AB 705 has been brought up multiple times during her tutoring sessions, and Morillo has noticed that students’ views on AB 705 remain polarized; some deem prerequisites as beneficial while others dislike them because it hinders their chances of transferring within a two-year timeframe.
Placed into English 1C during her first year at PCC, Morillo was not required to take any remedial English courses.
“… It’s allowed me to take a lot of different literature courses I wouldn’t have been able to take,” Morillo said. “So if I didn’t get placed into English 1C, I don’t think I would’ve learned as much as I did.”
A large number of students are unaware that AB 705 even exists, along with the transformation in courses and placement methods. Upon learning about the bill for the first time, Karl Rollert deemed the changes as an “oversimplified solution.”
Rollert studies psychology and biology at PCC. “I appreciate that someone is trying to make it easier to get a college education, but people really should just suck it up and take all the classes necessary to have a more thorough education, because the education standard isn’t thorough enough and you can’t just assume that people will learn by themselves if you don’t force them to, because they won’t,” he said. “This is community college, it’s not that hard.”
With the persisting fears and concerns, students should know that AB 705 compliance is a top priority for PCC faculty, and they are actively working to take hold of this rare opportunity to not only support students, but to build a more modern and accelerated learning environment.
“Change is hard for everyone, so there are some concerns and some fears.” Hintzman said. “But for the most part, what I am sensing from my colleagues, is that this is an interesting challenge for us to figure out how to best support our students, and it’s an opportunity to really take a close look at our curriculum and redesign things.”