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How to boost Cal State graduation rates without cheapening the degree

How to boost Cal State graduation rates without cheapening the degree
A group of graduates at Cal State University Northridge commencement ceremonies on May 25, 2011. (Los Angeles Times)

California State University officials vowed in 2014 to more than double the system's four-year graduation rate by 2025, but their own policies for bringing students up to college-level speed were getting in the way. Students who were assigned through placement tests to remedial classes in English and math weren't completing the courses successfully, making them more likely to drop out. The courses also didn't earn the students any college credits, which made sense because these skills were supposed to be nailed down in high school. But taking non-credit courses delayed the time to graduation, another obstacle to staying in college.

So, over the summer, Chancellor Timothy P. White handed down a new set of rules: There would be no more remedial courses and no more placement tests. Starting in 2018, students will take the regular introductory courses for credit, aided as needed by extra tutoring to see them through.

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The idea is that students' high school grades reflect their skills better than a placement test, and that remedial courses don't work for them. A study at the University of Alaska appears to bear this out: Students who aced placement tests in English and math often blew it in class; students who got pretty good grades in high school tended to do better even if their placement tests would have stuck them in remedial courses. Further, most of the supposedly remedial students who wangled their way into regular classes anyway passed them.

A separate decision at Cal State will soften math requirements for students who aren't majoring in math- or science-related fields. No longer will they have to take intermediate algebra or prove themselves proficient in it via testing. Instead, they might take such courses as personal finance or statistics. The algebra course has been another stumbling block toward a degree.

It can be easy to raise graduation rates, if that’s the only goal: Just lower the standards.


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It makes sense to remove obstacles that have nothing to do with measuring whether a student can master college-level work at a rigorous level. For many students, taking higher-level algebra isn't as relevant to their futures as learning other kinds of math. To that extent, the new Cal State policies seem at least worth trying. There are a number of respected private colleges across the country that have no math requirement at all.

As for getting rid of placement tests and remedial classes, if it worked in Alaska, maybe it will work in California.

Or maybe not.

It's unclear whether high school grades in California are as meaningful as those in other states. Among the 14% of Cal States students who have had to take remedial courses in both English and math, the average high school GPA was 3.2, or a B-plus. That's supposed to mean a very good grasp of course material, but perhaps it's a better indicator of grade inflation.

And once the words "graduation rate" are linked to these reforms, eyebrows should be raised. High schools, also pressed to raise graduation rates, have taken a number of shortcuts, including online makeup courses that sometimes lack the rigor of regular classes.

As great a goal as it is to improve graduation rates, once a specific graduation target is cast in stone, that number tends to matter more than the rigor of the courses and the quality of the learning. The state can't afford for the engineers, nurses and other professionals that come through its colleges to be less than well-trained; more of the state's teachers get their degrees from the CSU system than any other institution. And of Cal State's 470,000 students, about a quarter have needed remedial courses in at least one of the two subjects.

It's worth remembering that remedial courses first came about because so many high school students were qualifying for admission but floundering in for-credit college classes.

In other words, there's good reason for skepticism about dispensing with remedial courses and watering down the math requirements. But skepticism, no matter how reasonable, shouldn't stop Cal State from trying these steps, because they may well help more students succeed. What's sorely missing in the new policies is an accountability system to ensure that students are keeping up with college-level work. Professors shouldn't be required to provide ongoing remedial help in their non-introductory classes, and it's not realistic to tutor students all the way through college.

In the end, it can be easy to raise graduation rates, if that's the only goal: Just lower the standards. Cal State trustees should insist on regular, independent audits of these new policies to ensure that the education they're providing isn't being cheapened.

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