COMMENTARY: I supported the push to reduce remedial classes in California’s community colleges. This new bill goes too far

Credit: Solano Community College

In 2017, when Assemblymember Jacqui Irwin, D-Thousand Oaks, introduced Assembly Bill 705 — a bill insisting colleges allow students access to transfer-level classes unless they are deemed highly unlikely to succeed in those courses — I supported it.

My English department at Solano Community College was one of the first schools to adopt these reforms in the state; we had seen the power of student choice and access. This was clearly a time when legislation was warranted, where the representatives of the people needed to tell us as educators to change course in dramatic fashion.

And the data has proven the people right: We were forcing almost 80% of our students to take basic skills courses prior to enrolling in a transfer-level English or math class, and most got stuck there, without even the chance to attempt a course that would count toward a degree or transfer. And the tragedy is the vast majority didn’t need those courses. Since AB 705 became law and pushed colleges to let students decide for themselves whether they to take the transfer-level classes in math and English — with extra help available if needed — the number of incoming students who successfully completed transfer-level math and English greatly increased.

I’m so proud of the students, faculty and advocates who fought for this, who were willing to consider the possibility that their well-intentioned efforts of support had, in fact, hurt students more than helped them. And I’m proud of and grateful for the many colleagues around the state who were skeptical but who worked so hard to ensure the success of their students in this new environment.

However, I believe Assemblymember Irwin’s current bill, Assembly Bill 1705, goes too far, implying more success than our reforms have actually achieved.

The previous model forced students to take remedial classes they did not need, thereby delaying or derailing too many dreams, but if this bill passes, we’ll have a new problem; students who need the classes to achieve their dreams won’t be allowed to take them. Like the old system AB 705 ended, this new bill would ultimately rob the individual of choice and smacks of bureaucratic paternalism.

The new bill sets an impossible standard that will mean the absolute death of any pre-transfer level support at the community college: schools could only offer basic skills classes if attendance in those classes increases the statistical odds of completion of transfer-level math and English within one year. If a system of guided self-placement is working as it should, then students who are less prepared and less confident will be more likely to take a basic skills class than their more prepared and confident peers. And those students opting for the basic skills classes will, due to larger social inequalities, be less likely to succeed within that year than will members of their demographic group who chose the transfer-level course. This doesn’t mean the basic skills class caused the poor performance or wasn’t helpful, but simply that, within a demographic group, some students have more support and more self-confidence, which will be reflected in course selection and eventual success rates.

Yes, we still need to do the work to address racial and class bias within our institutions, which certainly contributes to the disproportionately high number of Black and brown students who voluntarily enroll in basic skills classes. But we need to address this without removing the support so many adults believe they need.

A student’s desire to enroll in basic skills classes is not always misguided. Not all students are succeeding in transfer-level courses even with concurrent support. For example, at Solano College, almost 50% of the students who entered our new system with a low high-school GPA are not passing our freshman English course. We have not yet identified a reliable path that will correct for past educational trauma. We can rightly argue they may not have succeeded in the old system either, but that’s not good enough to state with confidence that concurrent support is the only legitimate support a community college should offer students, or that students shouldn’t be allowed to take a pre-transfer course if they believe it is in their best interest.

We have shown the old model wasn’t working, but we shouldn’t pretend we’ve found the solution. We need maximum room to innovate and self-correct. The problem is systemic, and the solution must be systemic as well. The divisive one-size-fits-all mandate of AB1705 confuses correlation with causation and distracts from the real work.


Joshua Scott teaches English at Solano Community College.

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