A California Community College’s Response to Assembly Bill 705 and Its Impact on Math Placement

By: Jamylle Carter, Professor of Mathematics, Diablo Valley College

“I’m kind of nervous about being in this class.  Last year I wouldn’t have been able to take statistics because I hadn’t finished intermediate algebra.  Do you really think I can do this?”

This question came from a returning adult student (“Lori”) on the first day of our elementary statistics class with co-requisite support:  a concurrent support course that offers just-in-time remediation, study skills, and other tools for academic success in the required course. I met Lori last semester when her son (“Dorian”) was in my statistics class.  Lori was excited to return to school along with her son.  Since her son Dorian had aced statistics, she knew that he would be her tutor.  Still, she was nervous.  After she asked her question, several students nodded in agreement—they were all anxious about taking statistics.

This semester (Fall 2019) is the first time that my school Diablo Valley College (DVC), a two-year community college in the San Francisco Bay Area, is offering co-requisite support courses amended to our trigonometry, college algebra, and statistics courses.  In the past, students would have needed intermediate algebra as a prerequisite before they could take these courses.  Now, students without intermediate algebra can enroll directly in math courses that apply to their major if they also enroll in a co-requisite support course.

How Did We Get Here?

My colleague Katrina Keating, Ed.D., a professor of mathematics at DVC, summarizes the scenario in her dissertation:

“California community colleges are open-access institutions that admit students regardless of their level of preparation, but students must fulfill a mathematics requirement to earn an associate’s degree or to transfer to a four-year institution. Yet there is no single, shared definition of what it means to be ready for transfer-level mathematics. For the majority of California Community Colleges, readiness is determined by how well a student performs on an assessment/placement test (Ngo & Kwon, 2014; Perry et al., 2010; Regional Educational Lab (REL) West at WestEd, 2011). Thus, a student’s time at the community college—and their likelihood of finishing by earning a degree or transferring—is greatly influenced by a test that only provides a single snapshot in time, rather than giving credit for existing knowledge and past coursework (Center for K-12 Advancement and Performance Management at ETS, 2010; Hayward & Willett, 2014; Hern & Snell, 2010).”

Many community college students did not understand the importance of the assessment/placement test.  Some students would take the test cold, with no review of previously taken math courses. They might make a mistake on fractions and be forced into an arithmetic course even though they had taken calculus in high school. Since placement tests were having such a devastating effect on students, community colleges could have been augmenting the placement tests with another method of measuring a student’s background and capability. Unfortunately, they did not, despite a directive from a lawsuit brought by the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

DVC Vice President of Instruction Mary Gutierrez, Ed.D., gives a historical synopsis in her dissertation [Gutierrez, Mary. Acceleration and Community College English: Community of Practice, Equity, and Institutional Change.  2018. San Francisco State University.  EdD dissertation]:

“For decades, California legislators and community college officials have been aware that colleges’ use of assessment tests for placement bars some college-ready students from college-level courses and instead forces them into remediation. The Seymour-Campbell Matriculation Act of 1986 stipulated that assessment tests ‘be used as an advisory tool only’ but resulted in no change to the practice of using these tests for mandatory placement. In an effort to force compliance with the act, in 1988 the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) brought a lawsuit on behalf of student plaintiffs against Fullerton College and the California Community Colleges (CCC) chancellor. The suit provided evidence that Fullerton’s use of assessment tests resulted in discrimination against students who were denied equitable access to college-level classes and transfer opportunities. The MALDEF suit intended to force compliance with the 1986 Seymour-Campbell Matriculation Act. Instead, when the suit was settled in 1991, it resulted in new Title 5 regulations but no change in practice. The MALDEF victory was a victory in rule rather than effect.”

Despite the MALDEF settlement, most California community college students continued to be placed in remedial courses, get stuck there, and ultimately not move on to college-level coursework.  So further action was needed.

Enter California Assembly Bill 705 [Seymour-Campbell Student Success Act of 2012]

Gutierrez continues her analysis:

“In September 2017, members of the California State Assembly and Senate demonstrated their concern about students’ lack of access and progress to college-level courses in California community colleges by unanimously passing Assembly Bill 705 [the Seymour-Campbell Student Success Act of 2012] .”  By Fall 2019, every California community college is required “to maximize the probability that the student will enter and complete transfer-level coursework in English and mathematics within a one-year timeframe.”  In addition, “Assembly Bill 705 mandates that placement be informed by high school transcripts for entering community college students, effectively reducing barriers to college-level courses and increasing equitable placement into college-level English and math” (Gutierrez, 2018).

How the DVC Math Department Responded

This new state mandate has forced my department (at the DVC Pleasant Hill Campus) to rethink our course offerings. After receiving recommendations from the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, my department decided that a co-requisite model would best meet our needs. Faculty in the department recognize the challenges of admitting students that were previously labeled “not college-ready” into our transfer-level courses. But many of us also see this as a huge opportunity to meet students where they are and support their success in these courses. Now the onus is on us as faculty to connect and engage with students in a way that we haven’t been doing. This whole way of thinking is about giving students opportunities to engage with college-level material earlier.  Before Assembly Bill 705 (AB705), students had to prove that they were capable of doing college-level work.  Now we as faculty must recognize that many students are, in fact, college-ready if we give them the right support.

In the summer of 2018, my department created an AB705 Math Coordinator position with 50% release time to supervise our AB705 compliance and oversee the transformation of our departmental practices and course structure. Mathematics Professor Lindsey Lang has been leading us masterfully through this transition for the past three semesters. With her vision and guidance, the department has created co-requisite support courses with embedded peer tutors and counselors for our trigonometry, college algebra, and statistics courses.  Instructors of these support courses have formed communities of practice to share materials, experiences, and strategies with one another.

Initially, when I first learned about AB705, I was somewhat annoyed that California lawmakers were telling me how to teach. I knew that I had to comply with the law, but I resented the state’s intrusion into my classroom. Now that I understand the impetus behind AB705, I welcome it, but I’m still cautious about the challenges of teaching co-requisite courses. Although statistics requires very little knowledge of prior mathematics (arithmetic and a basic understanding of linear equations), trigonometry and college algebra require much more. Nonetheless, as Uri Treisman noted in his recent webinar Math Placement Trends and Innovations That Increase Equitable Access and Success – A Practical Guide, “we’re discovering that the co-requisites work.” My colleagues and I certainly hope so.

On that first day of statistics class, when Lori asked whether I thought she could do this, I smiled widely at her, thanked her for her question, and answered enthusiastically and unequivocally, “Yes! I know you can do this!”  The door is open.  Let’s see how many students walkthrough.

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Dr. Jamylle Laurice Carter is a professor of mathematics at Diablo Valley College. She serves on the board of directors of the National Association of Mathematicians as the community college member. A second-generation mathematician, Dr. Carter furthers her research and scholarship interests in applied mathematics, game theory, and mathematics education.