Cal State plans to drop placement exams in math and English as well as the noncredit remedial courses that more than 25,000 freshmen have been required to take each fall — a radical move away from the way public universities traditionally support students who come to college less prepared than their peers.
In an executive order issued late Wednesday, Chancellor Timothy P. White directed the nation's largest public university system to revamp its approach to remedial education and assess new freshmen for college readiness and course placement by using high school grades, ACT and SAT scores, previous classroom performance and other measures that administrators say provide a more accurate and comprehensive understanding of students' knowledge.
Cal State will no longer make those students who may need extra help take the standardized entry-level mathematics (ELM) exam and the English placement test (EPT).
The new protocol, which will go into effect in fall 2018, "facilitates equitable opportunity for first-year students to succeed through existing and redesigned education models," White wrote in a memorandum to the system's 23 campus presidents, who will be responsible for working with faculty to implement the changes. The hope is that these efforts will also help students obtain their degrees sooner — one of the public university system's priorities. Cal State has committed to doubling its four-year graduation rate, from 19% to 40%, by 2025.
The executive order comes at a time when educators and policymakers across the nation are questioning the effectiveness of traditional remedial education and placement exams. At Cal State, about 40% of freshmen each year are considered not ready for college-level work and required to take remedial classes that do not count toward their degrees.
Currently, students who enter Cal State without demonstrating college readiness in math and/or English are required to take up to three traditional remedial classes before they are allowed to enroll in courses that count toward their degrees. (If students do not pass these remedial courses during the first year, they are removed from university rolls.)
The problem is that these noncredit remedial courses cost the students more money and time, keep many in limbo and often frustrate them to the point that some eventually drop out, administrators said. In a recent study of similar college-prep work at community colleges, the Public Policy Institute of California found that remedial programs — also called developmental education — largely fail to help most students complete their academic or vocational programs.
Having so many students start their freshman year being told that they are already behind and giving them just one year to dig themselves out also doesn't help foster a sense of social or academic belonging, officials said.
Under the new system, all Cal State students will be allowed to take courses that count toward their degrees beginning on Day 1. Students who need additional support in math or English, for example, could be placed in "stretch" courses that simultaneously provide remedial help and allow them to complete the general math and English credits required for graduation.
Faculty are also being encouraged to explore other innovative ways to embed additional academic support in college-level courses. A few other states have experimented with these approaches, and the results so far are encouraging, administrators said.
"This will have a tremendous effect on the number of units students accumulate in their first year of college," said James T. Minor, Cal State's senior strategist for academic success and inclusive excellence. "It will have an enormous effect on college affordability, on the number of semesters that a student is required to be enrolled in before they earn a degree, and it will have a significant impact on the number of students that ultimately cross a commencement stage with a degree in hand, ready to move into the workforce, ready to move into graduate or professional school."
In addition to redesigning remedial requirements systemwide, the executive order instructs campuses to strengthen their summer Early Start programs. Starting in 2019, Early Start — intensive summer prep for incoming freshmen — will no longer focus on noncredit remedial courses and will instead offer students the chance to better prepare for college-level work while also completing courses for credit.
Some Cal State campuses, such as San Marcos and San Bernardino, have already begun to redesign their summer programs based on this approach.
Cal State officials said the executive order was issued after extensive consultation with students and faculty, who will spend the next year coming up with new and creative curriculum and course models in math and English for first-year students.
"Our timeline for implementation is aggressive," Minor said, but "we've got more than enough evidence to suggest that our current treatment of students, with the use of developmental education courses, doesn't serve them very well. ... And we have worked with and talked to our faculty... who are ready to roll up their sleeves and do the hard work that we need to do to serve our students better."
News of the systemwide changes rippled across California on Thursday. Some education advocacy and nonprofit groups said the shift from standardized placement exams to a "multiple-measures approach" was a huge step in the right direction — but that the devil will be in the details. "There's still the question of how exactly this will be implemented," said Audrey Dow, senior vice president of the Campaign for College Opportunity, which has been following the issue closely.
California Community Colleges Chancellor Eloy Ortiz Oakley, in an interview with The Times, also endorsed the multiple-measures approach, which he said the community college system is also adopting.
"This is the right approach for all of public higher education, particularly for broad-access public institutions like the community colleges and the CSU," he said. "I personally strongly believe that standardized placement exams have handicapped hundreds of thousands of our students, and they particularly target low-income students and students of color. We have, in my opinion, been placing many students in remedial courses that really didn't belong in those remedial courses — and in doing so have made it harder for them to complete their college educations."
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5:15 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout with additional information on the executive order and comments from higher education experts.