A Tale of Two Data Elements

Curriculum Committee Chair

For a friend, it was the best of times, yet it was the worst of times. He had bought a beautiful new carpet for the living room, but rather than enjoy his new floor covering, the result was that he became uncomfortably aware of the dinginess of the paint on the walls and the shoddy condition of the baseboards.

In a similar way, when we in the community colleges work to address one issue, we often end up becoming uncomfortably aware of others. Such is the case with our work on the proper coding of our courses for MIS reporting.

When the Chancellor's Office developed the Accountability Reporting for Community Colleges (ARCC), it became clear that the coding for basic skills course progress, in a data element which is called CB21, was inaccurate and essentially useless for reporting on student advancement through basic skills courses. This problem became more acute when the Legislature made it clear that funding for the Basic Skills Initiative was linked to such reports.

What is CB21, and what is wrong with it? In brief, CB21 is a data element that shows how many levels below transfer a mathematics, English, reading, or English as a Second Language (ESL) course is. This is indicated by an "A" for one level below, "B" for two levels below," "C" for three levels below, and "Y" for anything else. The problem is that neither curriculum committees nor faculty have had much to do with MIS coding and reporting, so the assignment of a CB21 code to mathematics, English, reading, and ESL courses was generally done by someone in the MIS department, a vice-president of instruction, or a staff member, sometimes without a thorough knowledge of the curriculum and with just the college catalog and course outlines as references. Not surprisingly, since neither of these reference sources is always clear about sequencing, this has resulted in some major errors in coding, including a preponderance of courses that are simply coded at the same level, regardless how they fit in the sequence. In addition, sequencing is relative to each college's unique course interpretations, such that aggregate system data provides little usable information. (For more information, refer to the December 2008 Rostrum article "What Is Basic Skills Coding About Anyway?)

How then to address this problem? In Fall 2008, the Academic Senate took the lead by bringing together faculty to first discuss how many levels below transfer each area required, and second, to provide a description of what a course at each level would comprise. Over 140 faculty were involved in the process, and as of April 2009 the rubrics had been vetted and refined by over 333 faculty experts. The final rubrics, including the improvements from the vetting, will be published for use in June 2009. Directions for recoding will be rolled out at the Curriculum Institute and through various other training opportunities. Faculty will be encouraged to work with MIS specialists, curriculum technicians, researchers, and vice presidents to use the rubrics to code their basic skills courses. The result will be greater accuracy in course coding, which will not only provide better information to assist in local program review but also comparable data across the system. In addition, there will be a much better idea of how students are progressing at each level of basic skills courses and specifically where interventions are needed.

One issue appears to now be successfully (or nearly so) addressed. However, given that chaos hates a void, it should be no surprise that the focus on CB21 has also alerted the Chancellor's Office to problematic coding of another data element, this time CB08. CB08 is a much simpler data element and shows whether or not a course is degree-applicable. What, you may wonder, could be the problem with such a straight-forward determination?

In actuality, there has been a problem with CB08 coding for a while. When Basic Skills Initiative moneys were first distributed, several colleges were found, based on their MIS reporting, to have no basic skills courses. Since the BSI moneys were divvied up based on basic skills course FTES, the colleges that got nothing quickly noticed something was wrong. The problem was in their coding for CB08. By definition, a basic skills course cannot be degree-applicable. Some colleges coded all credit courses as degree-applicable - hence, the lack of basic skills courses in their MIS reporting.

Not surprisingly, these colleges quickly attended to aspects of the miscoding of CB08 in order to garner their fair share of basic skills moneys. What the recent attention to CB21 has brought to light, however, is that a significant number of courses are still being miscoded under CB08. One point of confusion is the fact that the community colleges continue to have courses below transfer level that satisfy the requirement for an associate degree and are hence degree-applicable. At the current time, in English, this includes a course one level below freshman composition; and in mathematics, this includes both courses at the level of intermediate and elementary algebra. (Note: With the change in associate degree requirements in Fall 2009, more colleges will probably elect to restrict degree-applicability to Freshman composition and intermediate algebra.) Now you may be thinking, "Well, too bad for them. If they are still miscoding courses, they deserve to lose the additional basic skills moneys they might otherwise be getting." However, the problem is more than just money (although it's hard to imagine any problem bigger than money at the current time). The problem is even more than compliance with Title 5. The problem is also data.

In an initial review of CB08 coding, the Academic Senate found that courses as low as third-grade arithmetic, and even noncredit courses, were being inaccurately coded as degree-applicable. In a follow up research study, the Academic Senate took the mathematics coding that was currently entered and looked to see what would happen with the data when the CB08 coding was corrected. The results showed a significant change in the success rates for basic skills mathematics. For the 11 colleges with the lowest basic skills success rates last year, the corrected coding indicated significantly higher success rates in basic skills mathematics.

With a great sigh, you are probably now asking what this tale of two data elements is leading to. The first message is to alert you to the need for basic skills faculty to work with their MIS departments and others in the review of coding for CB21 and CB08 this coming fall. The benefit of improved coding is better data that will show how our work through the Basic Skills Initiative is actually helping our students to better succeed, thereby laying the groundwork for increased funding in the future. The danger in not attending to the coding is the generation of inaccurate data that may mislead your college as to how well students are learning and succeeding.

The broader message is simply a reminder that everything we do is interconnected. Nothing really functions in isolation, and we would be foolish to ever assume so.

Our friend finally repainted the walls and fixed up the base boards. Now he realizes how badly he needs to reupholster the couch.