LOS ANGELES – The first in his family to attend college, Paul Medina was increasingly frustrated by his inability to get into a college-level math class.
Medina first enrolled in remedial courses at a Los Angeles-area community college in 2005 after an assessment test placed him three classes below college level. The courses did not count toward a degree or transfer credits. He passed the first two, pre-algebra and high school-level algebra, but got stuck in intermediate algebra.
Twice, Medina dropped that class in frustration, giving up on college math for a few years, unsure he would ever pass the classes needed for a degree.
But a 2017 California law that sought to nearly eliminate remedial classes allowed Medina to skip intermediate algebra; he enrolled in a higher-level statistics course that offered intense tutoring, and he had no trouble passing.
“I see the benefits of not having remedial classes,” said Medina, 35, who has made academic progress toward three different associate degrees while working, sometimes full time. They can “discourage you and leave you behind. I saw a lot of students like myself get discouraged.”
But despite the law that requires community colleges to direct students like Medina away from remedial education, more than half of California’s 116 campuses have yet to embrace the change, which took effect in 2019.
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At least one in five introductory math courses is remedial at 69 California community colleges, according to the California Acceleration Project, a faculty group supporting a bill to strengthen the 2017 law to force the hold-outs to reduce those numbers. The bill passed in the California Assembly last week and now goes to the state Senate. While the original law required colleges to direct students into classes where they are “most likely to succeed,” it was vague on how colleges should do that. Some colleges have even increased remedial offerings since the law took effect, the California Acceleration Project says.
Advocates who want to largely do away with remedial education in California and in a handful of other states — including New York, Florida, Tennessee and Georgia, all of which have made changes — say many students can handle college-level work if given the opportunity, especially when they get help from tutors or supplemental classes. Students shouldn’t have to pay for classes that don’t count toward a degree and that they most likely won’t pass, these advocates say.
The community college law took effect shortly after California State University, the largest four-year system in the nation, eliminated placement exams and remedial classes in 2018, saying that they were costly and largely failed to help students achieve their educational goals.
Despite early success since the changes, just seven California community colleges had implemented the 2017 law “with fidelity” by 2021, according to the state chancellor’s office, meaning that the vast majority had yet to achieve the law’s goals of better student progress toward degrees. Colleges were allowed to implement the changes as they wished, a chancellor’s office spokesman said, but few strategies have worked.
Before the changes in California and elsewhere, half the nation’s community college students were placed in remedial classes in math or English, according to Complete College America. Fewer than a quarter of them passed those courses and went on to complete college-level math and English classes.
In California in 2020, though, after the law went into effect, 46 percent of first-time math students in college-level classes passed those classes, up from just 24 percent in 2018, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.
Despite those positive results, some community collegeadministrators are reluctant to eliminate remedial classes and often argue that students who feel unprepared academically should have the choice whether to start out in such courses, which don’t count toward a transfer to a four-year college or university.
Some students just aren’t ready for college math or English, they say.
“It’s about thinking more creatively about how to support students who don’t need a full repeat of high school coursework.” Adrián Trinidad, USC doctoral candidate
Even “if you don’t know basic arithmetic, you are now in a transfer-level course from day one,” said Jamey Nye, a deputy chancellor for the four-college Los Rios Community College District near Sacramento. “Faculty are very concerned with what to do with students who fail this course.”
Most colleges prevent students from taking a course more than three times. And students who run into academic trouble risk wasting time and money on a class they can’t pass, which experts say often leads them to give up on college altogether.
Resistance to eliminating remedial classes among California community college instructors is so strong that the statewide faculty association is opposing the new legislative bill and coordinating a letter-writing campaign against it.
Thousands of students failed college-level courses after the changes took effect in 2019, said Evan Hawkins, the faculty association’s executive director.
“To us that’s alarming,” he said. “Students are failing these courses at much higher levels than they were before.”
But statewide data from the chancellor’s office shows that the increase in students failing the higher-level courses is simply due to the fact that so many more students are taking them. And those failures are more than offset by the thousands fewer who are failing remedial courses. Completion rates in college-level math classes were up at every community college except one — Cuyamaca College near San Diego — in 2019-20, the first school year the new law was in effect, according to data from the state chancellor’s office.
Reform advocates say schools can do more. They note that many schools fail to explain to students that they likely could handle college-level classes, especially with what’s called a corequisite model, which gives underprepared students additional support or resources, such as tutors and “boot camps,” to make up gaps in their learning. If remedial courses are offered, these advocates say, too many students will choose them instead of the corequisite courses.
That strategy — giving students the choice — prevents many students from completing college, said Katie Hern, a co-founder of the California Acceleration Project.
“They legitimately believe that students should still have the ‘choice’ to enroll in a college-level course, but they put their thumb on the scale by offering so many remedial classes,” said Hern, who teaches English at Skyline College south of San Francisco. “They’re continuing to steer students toward these classes while saying, ‘No, no, it’s their choice.’ ”
Related: States are testing unproven ways to eliminate remedial ed — on their students
A California law firm, Public Advocates, last year urged the Los Rios Community College District to stop directing students into remedial courses, arguing that the practice disproportionately hurts Black and Latino students. At least one student, lawyers wrote, said the college never told him that he had a right to take more advanced courses.
Los Rios administrators ultimately agreed, and now say they are removing all remedial courses for the upcoming fall term.
“Math faculty are saying that’s crazy, that we need to offer remedial courses,” said Nye, the deputy chancellor. “But it wasn’t working, and it was a dead end for many students. We need to address the equity issues.”
Instructors do struggle, however, to find a balance between dead-end remedial classes and higher-level ones that might be too difficult, causing students to drop out.
“They legitimately believe that students should still have the ‘choice’ to enroll in a college-level course, but they put their thumb on the scale by offering so many remedial classes.” Katie Hern, a co-founder of the California Acceleration Project
Adrián Trinidad, who studied how race and power have affected the implementation of remedial reforms for his doctoral dissertation at the University of Southern California, says traditional placement tests have pushed too many students into remedial courses, especially students of color. Community college instructors need to do a better job of making college more welcoming and effective for those students, Trinidad said, by understanding individual needs and giving students the right support.
“It’s about thinking more creatively about how to support students who don’t need a full repeat of high school coursework,” he said.
Some instructors, such as John Schlueter at Saint Paul College in Minnesota, who teaches remedial writing, say colleges should offer both, and make remedial courses available to students who need them.
“I think that corequisite class where you have a student who’s maybe on the bubble is a great option,” he said. “But it’s not as good of an option for a student who’s not ready for college or not a native English speaker.”
At least some students like having the remedial option.
Algebra hadn’t been part of Lorrie Parks’ life since she left high school more than four decades ago. Now 56 and trying to finish an elusive college degree, Parks was embarrassed to find she wasn’t ready for basic math at Ventura College in California.
“I’m supposed to go into linear equations next fall. How’s that going to work?” said Parks, who is disabled and trying to get back into the workforce. She’s turned to private math classes to get up to speed. “It’s like I’ve just learned to read.”
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Nationally, more colleges are switching to the corequisite model.
During a large-scale trial run of corequisite classes in Tennessee, more students passed an introductory math class in one year than in the previous five years combined, said Tristan Denley, who led the effort for the Tennessee higher education system.
In New York, the City University of New York system found significantly higher degree completion rates and post-graduation wages among students who took corequisite courses than those who took remedial classes. CUNY plans to eliminate most remedial courses by the fall term, said Alexandra Logue, a CUNY professor and former provost for the 25-campus system who is helping lead those reforms. Too many students are incorrectly placed in remedial classes, she said, and the low completion rates there doom them.
“The weight of the evidence is clearly in favor of corequisite,” Logue said. “With traditional remediation, you’re eliminating potential students before they get there.”
Tennessee, Georgia and Florida have all seen success since eliminating most remedial courses, said Denley, who also led the initiative in Georgia and now is doing the same in Louisiana. The changes in Tennessee and Georgia eliminated racial disparities in completion rates, he said. Instructors have been mostly receptive to the reforms because of the promising results, and states will gradually have an easier time convincing faculty members as the changes gain momentum.
“Faculty are very sympathetic to these ideas when they’re presented with this data,” he said. “It’s perfectly reasonable for people to be skeptical. I think change is hard.”
This story about remedial education in college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.