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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Remediation called ‘segregation machine’

Community college placement tests create a “segregation machine,” pushing Latinos and blacks to dead-end remedial courses, a professor told an inewsource San Diego/Hechinger team of reporters.

Wendy Smith, an English professor at San Diego Mesa College, believes most students can start at the college level — and succeed — with extra help, report Meredith Kolodner, Brad Racino and Brandon Quester.

Anthony Rodriguez and Juneba Sulaiman failed a college math placement exam, but passed college-level statistics. Photo: Meredith Kolodner/Hechinger Report

A new state law bans community colleges from placing students in remedial courses unless they are “highly unlikely to succeed in transfer-level coursework.” By fall of 2019, colleges are supposed to use students’ previous grades and coursework, in addition to placement tests, to determine readiness.

“Using students’ high school transcripts in the placement process meant that 82 percent of new students could take college-level English, instead of 28 percent previously,” report Kolodner, Racino and Quester. “The move quadrupled the number of African-American students who were passing entry-level English in one semester.”

When unprepared students are told they need to pass three or four remedial classes before starting for-credit work, many give up. Failure rates are high for those who start at the college level — especially for the weakest students — but some will be motivated to stick with it, do the work and earn credit in one semester.

Placed in a low-level remedial math class, Anthony Rodriguez dropped out of Grossmont College near San Diego. He tried again at Cuyamaca College three years later.

(The placement exam) indicated he would need three remedial classes before being allowed into a transferable college-level class. But earlier that year, Cuyamaca had upended its remedial math program. Instead of relying solely on the placement test, Cuyamaca looked at Rodriguez’s GPA and the math classes he had passed in high school. These told him he could enroll directly in a college-level statistics class that provides extra support.

He passed with a B, which allowed him to move on to automotive tech classes that will enable him to achieve his career goal.

“Pass rates for underprepared students at Cuyamaca in college-level math jumped to 67 percent last year, up from 10 percent the year before,” according to the California Acceleration Project, Kolodner, Racino and Quester write. “Success rates were four times higher for Latinos, five times higher for white students and nine times higher for black students.”

However,  some community college professors believe the ban on remedial placement was passed without time for faculty to design supports for poorly prepared students.

California State University professors are fighting an executive order by Chancellor Timothy White, who told the 23-campus system to drop remedial classes by fall of 2018.

Currently, 39 percent of first-year students are placed in no-credit remedial classes in English, math or both. CSU draws from the top third of the state high school graduates.

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