Note: The following article is not an official statement of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges. The article is intended to engender discussion and consideration by local colleges.
Assembly Bill 705 (Irwin, 2017) dramatically changed the student assessment and placement system used in the California Community Colleges for English, mathematics, and English as a second language, as the implementation of the bill has shifted the primary basis for placement to students’ high school performance. Early data analysis shows that since the implementation of the placement requirements mandated by AB 705 through guidelines developed by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office (CCCCO) and the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges (ASCCC), larger numbers of students have been able to enroll in and complete transfer-level English and mathematics (Smith 2019), as the new placement system has minimized or eliminated the use of remedial or college preparatory classes and now allows students who would previously have been placed into such classes to enter directly into transfer-level. However, the same research also shows that while the raw numbers of students passing transfer-level English and math courses have increased, success rates have actually decreased slightly, especially for students of color (Smith, 2019). Simply put, while more students are passing the transfer-level courses, more are also failing, and therefore voices of concern about of the implementation of AB 705 have generally focused on the potentially negative impacts of the new placement system on underprepared students in need of remediation.
However, the student placement system created by AB 705 and the implementation guidelines published by the CCCCO may have unintended and undesired effects not only on underprepared students but on all students who are enrolled in transfer-level coursework in English and mathematics. When many of the students in a course are underprepared and need remediation but now must have their needs addressed in a transferrable course, the ways in which an instructor approaches and teaches the class may be impacted. The AB 705 implementation may have in many cases encouraged instructional innovation and experimentation that has led to positive curricular changes, but it may also have produced some less desirable consequences.
Jeff Burdick, a full-time faculty member in English at Clovis College, has seen such impacts. Burdick notes that “I’m currently teaching a self-placed 1A+ class [a freshman composition course with additional support], where about half the students are re-entry students and chose the assistance because they were aware of their deficiencies. The class works very well for them, and I have no doubt they will finish this semester ready for future classes.” However, Burdick adds,
But, they really aren’t getting the full university-level 1A experience because we spend much of our time teaching those “soft” skills that are necessary for the success of the other half of students: time management, basic thinking and idea-generation strategies, focus, etc. And, particularly, we are spending much more time on reading and retention strategies than we would in a regular 1A class where a few class sessions are sufficient to bring them up to the level of college annotations and retention necessary. That’s also true of grammar and usage.
The result, according to Burdick, is that “I’ve had to shorten the research papers and diminish rhetorical analysis assignments; discussions are less rich and involved.” Of course, Burdick still teaches to and fulfills the requirements of the course outline of record, as all faculty are required to do. However, the course outline is a minimum, and the richness provided by a faculty member’s ability to individualize the course and to fully and enthusiastically engage students may be sacrificed due to the additional demands of addressing remedial needs that were not previously a primary aspect of transfer classes.
A part-time faculty member in southern California—who asked that her comments remain anonymous—noted a similar experience to that described by Burdick:
When I am planning my freshman composition classes, I plan the semester under the assumption that students will know basic skills and terminology—thesis statements, how to construct a basic body paragraph, annotation, MLA format. But what I am finding is that I have to go back and re-teach some of those basics and catch people up. While I am always more than happy to help students be successful, I will say that I feel this frustrates other students who did come in with the skills they need. For example, this semester we began with rhetorical analysis. After reading the first essays, I will be doing a whole day of re-teaching essay basics because I fear that if I do not take the time to do it now, the underprepared students will only sink lower. Meanwhile, the prepared students who are eager to read, analyze, and discuss the engaging texts I spent months painstakingly selecting will have to wait. To sum it all up, it is not fair to either group of students.
When the class has to slow down to cover material that students previously would have been expected to know, as this instructor points out, the more prepared students are not allowed to progress in the same way they might have in the past, and thus, even though the instructor attempts to uphold standards and follow the course outline, the content and instruction of the class is altered significantly.
Faculty in the mathematics discipline have encountered similar issues. A math professor in the Los Rios District offers the following comment:
I taught a liberal arts mathematics class and its support course. It was difficult to teach a course for such a diverse range of abilities and impossible to get most up to speed with all of their deficiencies in just a 2-unit course (the support course). The questions from the students in the support course often dominated class discussion, which limited the depth of the liberal arts course. That is, instead of learning about the beauty of mathematics, the fully prepared students heard boring explanations about arithmetic. I also worry this may destroy math education for our weakest and most vulnerable students by removing the classes they most need.
As with the English faculty, this math instructor is working to accommodate the needs of all students in the class. However, faced with such a wide range of student preparation, the instructor is forced to dedicate extra time to issues that previously were not a focus in the course. As a result, the faculty member expresses concern regarding the depth in which the material can be covered, and the experience of all of the students in the class may be impacted.
Each of the 114 accredited colleges in the California Community Colleges system has its own unique student populations and will therefore encounter different results, and thus individual faculty members will have different experiences. Not all faculty agree that they have seen these negative impacts in their classrooms. Lisa Fitzgerald, an English professor at Long Beach City College, notes, “I’m not apt to say that our transfer-level course has really been changed since the implementation of AB 705 in that the student learning outcomes are the same, and students must still demonstrate proficiency in those areas in order to pass the class.” She also notes that many of the changes to the ways she teaches the class have been positive and have benefited students.
However, Fitzgerald does raise another issue with the changes to student placement under the AB 705 implementation guidelines: the impact on faculty. “I have found that with the implementation of AB 705, I must work much harder than I may have in the past to teach in this new manner,” she says. “A lighter course load or smaller class sizes could help tremendously to offset some of the fatigue caused by the new way that I teach, which can be exhausting. Responding to multi-level students who are in the same class takes significantly more time and effort, yet all students are given the opportunity to learn, and I don’t see those who are more prepared suffering.” This sense of fatigue has also been noted by other faculty who have always worked hard to serve all of their students but must now stretch themselves even thinner to accommodate their many students who need remediation but are not in classes that are primarily focused on providing it.
Other faculty in English, mathematics, and ESL have raised additional issues. Composition courses, for example, often require students to work in groups, and some faculty have noted an impact on more prepared students who have to adjust to or compensate for too many underprepared students in such a setting. Others have suggested that faculty in disciplines outside of English and math may have become frustrated with the essential elimination of English and math prerequisites and therefore changed assignments such that although the course outline’s requirements are still met, students do so with less writing or computation. While the degree to which such impacts may be occurring will vary college to college and even among faculty within a college, these issues must be considered in assessing the full effects of the AB 705 implementation.
Changes that have taken place due to the implementation of AB 705 have certainly, in some cases, been positive. Many faculty would agree that the sequences of pre-transfer courses in English, mathematics, and ESL needed to be shortened and that the new placement system has forced them to consider new and innovative approaches to their teaching. Yet in spite of these potentially positive aspects, difficulties have also arisen in terms of the impact on the curriculum and faculty workload and fatigue. For these reasons and others, further study and ultimately adjustment of the California Community Colleges placement process of issues such as curriculum structure and class sizes are needed to ensure that the positive aspects of the new system are preserved without negatively impacting the content of the courses or the faculty who teach them.
Smith, Ashley A. (2019). More California community college students entering, passing transfer-level math and English as result of landmark law. EdSource: Highlighting Strategies for Student Success. September 27.