By Alina Herrera
In 2012, at the age of 34, Antonio Valencia decided he wanted to go to college and get his degree as a business major.
He knew he had a long road ahead of him and a lot of work to do. As a full-time employee at the water treatment company Pentair, serving as the maintenance manager, and a father of three young children, he knew it would be a challenge. He was willing to accept the challenge if it meant making him more competitive at his job. However, he did not realize exactly how much work this was until he took his placement tests.
Valencia ended up placing low on the COC exams, which meant he would have to take additional prerequisite courses before completing his transfer-level courses in math and English.
Fast forward seven years later and Valencia has completed all of his courses required for his COC degree, except for those in math and economics. The long list of prerequisite classes he has to take is discouraging for him.
Valencia feels that these prerequisite courses are a waste of time and money.
This is the case for many college students all over California. Students who do poorly on placement exams feel discouraged because of all the extra work they have to do, which is believed to be a reason many people drop out.
A controversial solution was presented in October 2017, when former Gov. Jerry Brown passed Assembly Bill 705. It prohibits colleges from requiring students to enroll in remedial English or mathematics classes unless the college can prove through research that this student will not succeed in that course. All of California’s 114 community colleges must conform to this law by fall of 2019.
Saburo Matsumoto, who is a part of the COC mathematics department, and Alene Terzian-Zeitounian, an English professor and department chair, are the two people who are spearheading the implementation of AB 705 at COC.
“We were shocked it passed. It’s controversial, but we have to be professional,” said Terzian-Zeitounian. “There’s no way that leaders of two of the biggest departments on campus can enter this discussion with anything other than optimism. Because if we set an example that everything is gonna blow up, that won’t translate well to all the other faculty. We’ve been given this mandate, there’s nothing we could do about it except our very best to ensure that students succeed.”
While the law was passed with intentions to help students, many feel this law will fail and harm students. Those who truly are not ready to take transfer level classes can be forced into them and can end up failing the class. This of course will cause more harm.
“The whole target is to increase completion rates of transfer level math and English,” said Matsumoto.
While people are worried that this law is not at all beneficial, Matsumoto says that compared to what is in place today, “Anything is better… If just a small percent passes, it’s still an improvement over the last system. So, the graduation rate will go up.”
“There are many people who feel this is going to fail. I am not one of them. I am optimistic that if we put the right type of programs to supplement student learning in place then this could actually be a success,” Terzian-Zeitounian said.
Matsumoto explained that there are three big components to this law: The first being the use of multiple measures. This means that COC is completely removing the placement tests and using high-school grades and coursework to determine where a student would succeed.
The second component is that the student has to place into transfer-level courses. Colleges are not allowed to place the students in anything lower than a transfer-level course.
The third is that colleges and districts are supposed to maximize the probability that students complete transfer math and English within a one-year timeframe, which is two semesters.
Terzian-Zeitounian recognizes that there will be students who are not prepared. However, instructors are being trained to make sure these students are successful. She is hoping to create a mindset that students are capable of going into English 101, which is the first English transfer-level course, and passing it.
She is cautiously optimistic, and wants the English department to put its best foot forward because teachers do not want to set students up to fail.
Coming fall of 2019, COC will no longer offer any English classes below transfer level. The developmental course sequence was eliminated because schools are not allowed to place students into those classes. The only way they could take those classes is if they self-place.
“Based on statistics and basic data that we found and learned, many students who placed themselves into developmental classes aren’t those who really needed it. Those who placed themselves are typically students who lack confidence,” Terzian-Zeitounian said. “We, as the English department, wanted to eliminate all disproportionate impact; we don’t want to commit an equity issue by having those classes. Instead, we wanted everyone to be on a level playing field.”
A responsibility now falls on the instructor, more than ever, to find a way to teach to varying skill levels.
English 101 will no longer be a three-unit class but instead a four-unit one. That fourth unit is being used to strengthen the rhetorical components of the course. Due to the extra unit, the class will now meet for two hours and five minutes instead of one hour and twenty minutes. This extra time will be used to supplement any deficiencies students may have.
However, the math department is taking a different route. Instead of completely getting rid of the classes below transfer level, it is reducing the number of sections significantly for those lower classes.
On top of this, the math department is creating three new co-requisite classes for entry level transfer courses. These are developmental courses that are acceptable because it means students do not have to spend additional semesters taking them.
It will benefit students because they will have the extra support yet they will not feel as if they are allowing a whole semester go to waste, since they will still be taking a transfer-level course.
“I think this is a positive thing, however I do wish it would’ve been done sooner,” said Matsumoto. More than money, he said the real issue with prerequisite classes are that they are a waste of time for many people.
One can see why people would be in favor of this law. If, in fact, it does raise transfer rates then it is worth it. It could even lead to more people feeling encouraged to pursue a higher education because they will feel as if they could get their degree quicker.
On the other hand, this law can be setting students up for failure by encouraging them to do something they truly may not be ready for.
These students could very well be rushing into these classes where they can end up doing poorly. That will end up hurting their GPA, and transcript, thus, damaging their chances of getting into certain schools that they may want to transfer to and could very well discourage them and cause them to give up.
It will be interesting to see how things play out and while it is good to hope that the results are positive, there is a possibility that this law could do a lot of damage. However, it is obvious that both Matsumoto and Terzian-Zeitounian are staying positive.
As for Valencia, he is conflicted, but is also glad these changes are being made.
“Although I am happy that people who are entering college after me do not have to do all this extra work, I wish somebody would have stepped up sooner and gotten this law passed years ago. It would have saved me a lot of time. But, it is better late than never, and I think it’s a step forward in the right direction,” Valencia said.