Cal State remedial education reforms help thousands more students pass college-level math classes
Rogelio Perez has long struggled with math. Had he entered California State University last year, his C grades and low standardized test scores would have steered him into a non-credit remedial math class. He would still have had to pay for the class and fallen behind at least a semester in his path toward graduation.
But under a sweeping reform in the nation’s largest four-year public university system, Perez is doing college-level work in statistics and algebra, aided by 150 minutes of extra instruction every week. And he’ll get college credit if he passes — which looks likely, since he’s earning an A so far.
“I feel this is a really good system because the extra review helps us understand more and in depth,” said Perez, a Cal State Dominguez Hills freshman who is the first in his family to attend college. “Without it, I’d probably have the same trouble I had in high school.”
The first results are in for the Cal State system’s controversial move last year to eliminate non-credit remedial classes and replace them with regular courses, buttressed with extra support, that count toward an undergraduate degree. Last fall, nearly 7,800 students like Perez were able to pass those higher-level math classes, according to CSU data released Monday.
In both 2017 and 2018, about the same number of first-year students — 17,400 — were unprepared for college-level math courses. About two-thirds of those who enrolled in one anyway succeeded under both the old and new systems. But the number of students who did so under the new reforms increased dramatically — 7,787 students last fall, compared to just 950 the previous year.
“What’s exciting to me about this data is that it refutes a theory that … all of these students who are unprepared for college math [will] fail,” said James T. Minor, a CSU assistant vice chancellor. “The data simply do not support that. Disproportionately, low-income, black and brown students are now earning college credit.”
The reforms, announced by Cal State Chancellor Timothy P. White in an August 2017 executive order, are expected to aid a systemwide push to boost four-year graduation rates from 19% in 2015 to 40% by 2025. White also ordered that all students be assessed for college readiness not merely through one placement test — a measure criticized for inaccurately evaluating students who are low-income or underrepresented minorities — but through multiple criteria, including high school courses, grades and standardized tests.
White’s orders upset many faculty members, who said the chancellor failed to adequately consult them. Critics were unhappy with his decree to make the switch across the system all at once in just a year rather than phase it in. And some doubted that unprepared students could succeed in college-level classes.
At Cal State Northridge, some faculty critics note that four out of 10 students still failed to pass the reformed classes last fall, an outcome essentially unchanged from the remedial offerings the previous year. But campus Provost Stella Theodoulou said those students now save money and time by bypassing noncredit classes.
CSUN math professor Michael Neubauer, however, still has questions. He said the new math classes are virtually the same as the old remedial ones. “My concern is that students are getting college credit for what?” he said.
At other campuses, the results have won over skeptics. Sacramento State University has been among the most successful of the system’s 23 campuses, especially among students not planning to major in science, technology, engineering or math. About 93% of them passed the fundamental algebra course last fall, compared to less than 60% in the comparable remedial math course the year before.
“I was nervous we would push students into coursework they were unprepared for, and I’m delightfully embarrassed to admit I’m wrong,” said David Zeigler, chairman of Sac State’s mathematics and statistics department.
Key to the success, Zeigler said, was a redesign of the curriculum to make it more relevant to students — showing how polynomials can be used to model blood pressure or the stock market, for instance. The math faculty experimented with math boot camps and online tools. They also offered extra support in class and by hiring more student instructors to help their peers.
Cal State Los Angeles has made similar changes. Faculty redesigned its math program to cater to those majoring in the sciences and math and those who aren’t. They developed a program offering teaching tips. And the academic support unit, called “Smart Start,” follows up with students who are floundering three times each term to offer extra help.
Michelle Hawley, Cal State LA associate vice president, said she’s learned to see student potential in a new way. “I was very skeptical and thought it was just a shortcut,” she said of the reforms. “But I learned that just because you can’t pass a test doesn’t mean you’re not capable of learning the subject.”
At Cal State Dominguez Hills, math instructor Gia Nguyen aims to engage students with real-life examples — teaching probability by having them throw dice, for instance — and puzzle out problems together. The campus requires first-year students who are least prepared for college-level work to take math in both the summer and one term in the regular school year along with supplemental instruction. Their pass rate is about 68%, compared to 75% for students who don’t need extra support, said Matt Jones, the math department chairman.
“That’s reasonably close, and we feel we’re bringing students up without the long path to get there,” he said, adding that both groups use the same textbook and are held to the same standard.
For many students, the reforms seem to be a hit. In their weekly review class last week, freshmen Abril Petlacalco and Bryanna Lievanos worked together on practice problems for an upcoming midterm exam, figuring out standard deviations, means and medians. The math instructor, Susan Huniu, went from group to group, fielding questions.
Lievanos, the daughter of immigrants and the first in her family to attend college, said the engaging teachers and review sessions are helping her grasp a subject she never particularly liked. In high school, she said, she often got Cs in math.
“I always struggled with math,” she said. “But I’ve had really good teachers here and I get what they’re teaching.”
Her goal this semester: a B in math and college credit.
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