Placement exams are ineffective

Tens of thousands of California community college students may be wrongly assigned to remedial English and math courses based on placement exams that are flawed. At a time of increasing state and national scrutiny on completion rates, two national studies from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College found that the most common placement exams are poor predictors of college success.

In Predicting Success in College: The Importance of Placement Tests and High School Transcripts, researchers found “high ‘severe’ error rates using the placement test cutoffs.” How bad? Three out of ten students were wrongly assigned in English. The numbers were lower in math, “but still not nontrivial,” wrote the authors.

A far better indicator of how students will do in college is how they performed in high school. When researchers compared success rates using only high school GPA or only placement exams,they found the “severe error rate” was cut in half for the GPA group.

Comparing success rates by high school grades and scores on the two main placement exams. (Source:  CCRC 2012) Click to enlarge.
Comparing success rates by high school grades and scores on the two main placement exams. (Source: CCRC 2012) Click to enlarge.

The results were slightly less conclusive in math in the second study, titled Do High-Stakes Placement Exams Predict College Success? Researcher Judith Scott-Clayton found that math placement exams were more accurate than English placement tests. But Scott-Clayton had this caveat: “Placement test scores are better at predicting who is likely to do well in the college-level course than predicting who is likely to fail.”

None of this surprises Robert Gabriner, director emeritus of the Center for Student Success at the Research & Planning Group for California Community Colleges. He said researchers have been skeptical about the validity of placement tests for years.

“Some of my colleagues said you could put a chart on the wall and have monkeys throw darts at it and it would be just as reliable,” Gabriner recalled.

“This is a real positive step,” he said. “Where this leads is that overnight we have increased the number of students who do not go into basic skills in English and math because they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

That could mean the difference between earning a degree or credential or giving up. Numerous studies have shown that students stuck for several semesters in remedial – also known as basic skills – courses are significantly more likely to drop out of community college. A student required to take three semesters of basic skills math has just a 16 percent chance of finishing those courses according to another CCRC study; for English it’s 22 percent.

In California, between 70 and 90 percent of first-time community college students place into remedial math, English, or both. They have to pay for the courses, but the credits earned don’t count toward an Associate degree or units needed to transfer to a four-year college.

“Our average, and we’re not unusual, there are students who typically take seven to eight semesters at City College before they’re able to get out; that’s four years,” explained San Francisco City College chancellor Don Griffin. “The question really is, if you were allowed to go to a college-level class based on high school performance would you do as well as students who had been placed there?”

Chancellor Griffin believes those students would do as well, and the studies back him up. CCRC director Thomas Bailey found that students who ignored the results of the placement exams and went directly into college-level classes had lower success rates than the students who placed into those courses; but, weighed against students who accepted the test results and enrolled in basic skills, they did significantly better in college-level courses, passing at a rate of 72 percent compared to 27 percent.

City College ran its own experiment on placement exams and the results reinforced Griffin’s lack of confidence in the tests. They retested students two weeks after they took the placement exam, and 40 percent of them scored well enough to move into a higher-level course.

Next up, he’s asked the academic senate to approve a pilot program to take 500 new students and not test them all, and instead place them based on their high school grades. Griffin hopes to start the program next fall, and he predicts that the results will be good.

“If you want to look at how competent a person is, you place them in the best class, give them competent instruction, and see how well they perform,” said Griffin. “And I think the expectation is that they will perform well.”

Unexpected cuts for CA colleges

Stop me if you’ve heard this before. California community colleges are facing a midyear budget cut. No, not the $102 million January trigger cut; that’s so last month. This one is being called the “February surprise,” and it triggered this tweet from California Community Colleges Chancellor Jack Scott:

#CA #Comm_Colleges will take another $149M unexpected cut this year. The state must stop disinvestment in #highered

The $149 million came about from two miscalculations: revenues from both property taxes and student fees were significantly lower than expected.

It turns out that when preparing the 2011-12 budget, the Department of Finance was overly optimistic in estimating how much money community colleges would bring in by raising student fees from $26 per unit to $36 per unit. Finance officials anticipated $110 million in increased revenues. The Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office figured that was about $25 million too high. They were both wrong. The shortfall came to $107 million.

The remaining $42 million deficit is almost entirely due to a shortage in property taxes. Unlike K-12 schools, there’s no automatic backfill for community colleges when property taxes come up short. Community college leaders said they’ve seen large decreases in property tax revenue before, but the student fees really caught them off guard.

“We’ve never seen an enrollment fee shortfall this large,” said Theresa Tena, director of fiscal policy for the Community College League of California (CCLC). “This is a new phenomenon that we’re seeing.”

What happened was something of a domino effect. When Gov. Brown and his finance department factored in the new revenues from the fee increase, they didn’t fully account for the corresponding increase in the number of students applying for Board of Governors fee waivers. As we reported here, even before the latest fee hike, waivers have been on the rise; this year 62 percent of students received them.

CCLC estimates that the $149 million amounts to an additional reduction of $135 per student.* That’s on top of the midyear trigger cuts, which were added to the $313 million decrease in the 2011-12 budget that kicked in at the start of the school year. If you’ve lost track, it amounts to $564 million this fiscal year.

Colleges did plan for some additional shortfall, but not this much. Los Rios Community College District, in the Sacramento area, expected to lose another $1.2 million; instead, it faces a $6.8 million cut. “We won’t absorb it all in this year,” said Jon Sharpe, deputy chancellor for finance and administration. “We think that it would be unfair to pull the rug out for some of the academic and student programs.”

Instead, Los Rios is reducing costs that don’t directly affect students. Openings in non-academic positions won’t be filled, they’re cutting back discretionary spending, and, said Sharpe, “a good portion of it will have to come out of next year.”

The tiny Lake Tahoe Community College – one of the four smallest districts in the state – is dipping half a million dollars into its reserves to get through the rest of this year. “We’ve asked everybody to be very prudent,” said superintendent and president Kindred Murillo. They’re cutting back on travel, putting equipment purchases on hold, and paring down technology, facilities, and human resources assessments that are required for accreditation.

They’re also appealing to Sacramento to stop the budget seesaw and create a reliable funding structure for future years so schools can plan their course schedules and hire people without worrying whether they’ll have to cancel.

“You offer a class to an adjunct professor and then two weeks later you’re saying, ‘I’m sorry, the budget’s been cut and we have to alter our schedule,'” Murillo explained. “Education needs a stable budget, one that we can count on from one year to the next.”

Over the past few weeks as the severity of the budget situation became clear, high-level conversations have taken place with the State Chancellor’s Office, the Department of Finance, and lawmakers. Community colleges are seeking agreement for an appropriations bill that would cover the losses.

Vice Chancellor for Finance Dan Troy said he doesn’t expect any action before the May revise, but it would be helpful to get a sign from the governor and Legislature that they’re willing to take action. That way, the colleges will have time to plan for cuts instead of having to make quick reductions.

“The problem comes where you have no idea whether it’s coming or not,” said Troy. “That’s why I’m hopeful the governor and Legislature will send a signal that they’re looking out for us.”

* Click here for list of how much each district will lose.

Should California community colleges prioritize enrollment to help students graduate earlier?

By the end of this week, the Student Success Act of 2012 should be officially introduced in the Legislature, launching the debate on how to improve success rates at California’s community colleges.  The Act is necessary to implement some of the 22 recommendations of the Student Success Task Force, which spent the last year developing the proposals and soliciting feedback at dozens of public hearings across the state.

California’s community colleges enroll about 2.6 million students at 112 campuses and have a broad mission. But the completion rates for students seeking associate degrees, certificates, and transfer credits is disappointing. Less than 54 percent of degree-seeking students ever reach their goals, and the rates are much lower for African American and Latino students, and the vast majority of students who have to complete basic skills courses.

Although the Community College Board of Governors approved the task force recommendations, some of the proposals remain divisive, particularly the plans that give priority enrollment to students who move more quickly through community college and, conversely, push the other students to the end of the line.

We have four commentaries on this issue from people who have been closely involved in the process over the last year. Community College Board of Governors member Peter MacDougall served as chair of the Student Success Task Force. Michelle Pilati gave testimony at many of the hearings as president of the California Community Colleges Academic Senate, as did Michele Siqueiros, executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity, and Emily Kinner, the president of the California Community College Association of Student Trustees. We welcome your thoughts on the issue.

Peter MacDougall: New enrollment priorities necessary and fair

Peter MacDougall
Peter MacDougall

The question that is posed is one that the Student Success Task Force studied in great detail as it developed recommendations designed to help California community college students succeed and achieve their educational goals on time.

It used to be that community colleges could serve almost anyone who wanted to enroll in a wide offering of courses – whether the goal was to get a degree or certificate, transfer to a four-year institution, or take enrichment courses. However, severe budget cuts have substantially reduced the number of courses colleges can offer. Yet enrollment policies remain in place throughout much of the system that allow hobbyists and students who have accumulated large numbers of units to register ahead of first-time students seeking certificates, associate degrees in career and technical fields, and transfer preparation.

This is not acceptable; hundreds of thousands of first-time students, recent graduates of California’s high schools, have been turned away because they could not register for a single course.

The task force, recognizing that financial constraints have forced colleges to limit their educational offerings, concluded that a new set of priorities is needed to guide enrollment. The proposed policies will give priority to students seeking courses that address the core mission of our colleges: career technical education, completing lower division transfer requirements, and basic skills and English as a second language. These students will also be expected to take a diagnostic assessment, participate in orientation, and develop an education plan.

All students will need to identify a program of study within three semesters or they will lose their registration priority. In addition, students who accumulate more than 100 units, not including English as a second language and basic skills courses, would lose their enrollment priority.

Research shows that students who develop an education plan and identify a course of study early in their academic careers are more likely to succeed. Students, of course, will be able to change their course of study should their interests and goals change.

Given the substantial increase in the expense of pursuing both a four-year degree and career and technical training programs, it is imperative that California ensure low-cost access to the high-quality educational opportunities provided by our community colleges.

Altering enrollment prioritization is an efficient way of encouraging successful student behaviors and ensuring that we intelligently ration classes. While these policy proposals may have been born at a time of financial crisis in our colleges, they are fair and sensible reforms that should be made regardless of budget considerations.

Peter MacDougall, Ph.D., is chair of the California Community Colleges Student Success Task Force and is a member of the California Community Colleges Board of Governors. He served as superintendent and president of the Santa Barbara Community College District from 1981 to 2002. Prior to that, Dr. MacDougall served as dean of students at Los Angeles Pierce College and director of educational services for the Los Angeles Community College District. From 1968 to 1975, he was associate dean of students and a professor of counseling psychology in the graduate school of education at Rutgers State University of New Jersey.

Michelle L. Pilati: Deciding who’s worthy conflicts with mission

Michelle Pilati
Michelle Pilati

Prioritization is not a simple “do we do it or not” option; it is a multidimensional tool that can be used in effective and ineffective ways. The notion of using prioritization as a means to “enable students to graduate earlier” is simplistic at its best and fundamentally flawed at its worst. In addition to the implication that “graduation” (i.e., degree completion) is our only mission, the factors that lead students to take “too long” are complex and, often, institutional. Unit accumulation need not reflect a student “wandering” or engaging in avocational pursuits. Students may accumulate “excess” units as they strive to identify their goals, enroll in classes that do not apply towards their goal due to an inability to get into needed classes, or find a particular faculty member is so engaging that they want to learn more from him or her.

Putting aside the idea that proper prioritization will force students to establish a goal and stick with it (college grads out there – how many times did you change your major?), could we use prioritization as a means of helping students to attain their goals? Of course we could, but how do we go about this in an equitable way? Who is more “worthy”: a veteran, a new student, a student with two classes left to complete a transfer degree, a student with four classes left to complete a certificate in automotive technology, or a new immigrant who wishes to learn English? While the focus of conversation about this topic has often been about who should not have priority, no one has considered the universe of students who have worthy educational needs but have goals that may not be consistent with the quantitative definitions of success that we are compelled to work with.

Ideally, students would have priority access to the courses that are consistent with their goals; the student who needs a given class in order to graduate would trump the one who is taking it for pleasure, and the English-language learner would have priority for those classes to help her attain her goal. The conversation about prioritization has yet to really begin.

Michelle L. Pilati, Ph.D., is the president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges (ASCCC) and a professor of psychology at Rio Hondo College, where she has been full-time faculty since 1999, and served as Distance Education Coordinator and Curriculum Chair. At the national level she has pursued her interest in online education, serving as an editor for MERLOT (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) and  co-editor of the MERLOT peer-reviewed journal, JOLT. Prior to her current position, she served as a visiting professor at UC Irvine, conducted postdoctoral research at UCLA’s Drug Abuse Research Center, and worked as an academic counselor in UCLA’s Department of Psychology. She completed her doctorate in psychology at UCLA.

Michele Siqueiros: Prioritizing fulfills promise of college opportunity

Michele Siqueiros
Michele Siqueiros

Students are taking longer and longer to graduate from community college, and that’s due to several factors, including devastating budget cuts that forced the system to eliminate thousands of courses and turn away an estimated 200,000 students last fall. For those who do get in, researchers in our 2010 Divided We Fail report found that after six years, only three in ten degree-seeking students obtained a vocational certificate, earned an associate degree, or transferred to a four-year university.

We must continue to demand adequate funding for higher education, but we can also be smarter with the resources available. Prioritizing course offerings is one way to do that. There are daily stories about community college students unable to get the classes they need for their major or program. In a year when more than 20,000 course sections were cut – including basic skills, transfer-level English and math, career pathway courses, and ESL – the following were still available: Playing the Ukulele for Older Adults; Ceramics: An Option for Friday Night; Latin for Lifelong Learners; Reminiscing; Reclaiming Joy: Meeting Your Inner Child; and Finding Buried Treasure: Organizing Your Clutter. You get the picture.

California no longer has the resources to subsidize students attending community college for recreational purposes. Prioritizing enrollment for students with a goal and a plan to complete it is smart. They will finish community college faster, freeing up spaces for the next class of high school graduates who can’t find a spot at a UC or Cal State campus, can’t afford the higher fees, or simply prefer the preparation, flexibility, and location of their local community college.

Under the current system, some students are forced to enroll in courses they do not need in order to keep their financial aid and/or their unit count high because the system rewards the accumulation of units with registration priority instead of prioritizing students who are trying to transfer, get a degree, or earn a vocational certificate.

The community college system has an opportunity to reengineer itself with the recent Student Success Task Force recommendations. The recommendations include prioritized enrollment and aligning course offerings. They move us toward  a core value many of us believe: that the promise of college opportunity is fulfilled only if students are successful at getting through college. Prioritizing our enrollment and course offerings is one way to start students off right and prepare them to cross the finish line.

Michele Siqueiros is the executive director of the Campaign for College Opportunity, a nonprofit organization that works to expand access and success in higher education for California students by promoting policy solutions with the support of a broad-based, bipartisan statewide coalition. She was recently appointed by Governor Jerry Brown to the California Student Aid Commission. She is a board member of the Institute for Higher Education Policy and the Alliance for a Better Community and serves on the core planning team for the Latino Student Success initiative led by Long Beach City College.

Emily Kinner: Plan could force out neediest students

Emily Kinner
Emily Kinner

The Student Success Act currently being drafted is of deep concern for many community college students. The legislation is modeled on the Student Success Task Force recommendations recently approved by the California Community Colleges Board of Governors.

While we believe many of the recommendations would bring positive changes, the California Community College Association of Student Trustees (CCCAST) has voted to oppose this package because, contrary to its stated focus on improving student success, we believe it will have the unintended consequence of pushing out students who are less likely to succeed, therefore superficially improving the success statistics of our system.

The proposed changes to the Board of Governors’ fee waivers are one example. In order to continue to qualify for a waiver, students would have to identify a degree, certificate, transfer, or career advancement goal; meet institutional satisfactory progress standards; and have no more than 110 units, not including basic skills and ESL courses. This could make community college unaffordable for our most underserved students, who may take longer to get through college because they have to take time out from school to work in order to support their families. These students end up taking classes they don’t need in order to keep their financial aid, but could wind up with more than 110 units as a result. Without the fee waivers, we are concerned that many of these students will drop out for good. At a recent hearing of the Joint Committee on Higher Education in Sacramento, Assemblymember Marty Block, a Democrat from San Diego, called the recommendation the “death penalty” for some of our neediest students.

During this time of fiscal crisis, with the toll it has taken on public education in the state of California, we appreciate the need for a reevaluation of how to better serve California Community College students. We also understand that there are greater problems with our government’s fiscal structures that can’t be addressed within the context of the Student Success Task Force.

We respect the efforts and dedication of the task force members during their yearlong deliberations regarding student success, as well as their attempts to remedy the fiscal problems of our community college system. We appreciate that our voices have been heard and have helped in the more positive changes since the first drafts. However, we feel more time is needed to consider proposals in order to make sure we protect our most vulnerable populations because, ultimately, student success will be achieved only when the goal is student access.

Emily Kinner serves as student trustee for the Foothill-De Anza Community College District and president of the California Community College Association of Student Trustees (CCCAST). She is a Rappaport intern at the De Anza Institute for Community and Civic Engagement. Since 2011, she has led the De Anza EcoPass Campaign for affordable transportation and served as coalitions coordinator for the “No on PROP 23” CALPIRG campaign. She is currently an organizer for the “Occupy for Education at De Anza” project, advocating for access, equity, and affordability in the California community college system.

Low college transfer rate dissected

President Obama has long been a champion of community colleges and he demonstrated that commitment Monday, when he traveled to Northern Virginia Community College to release his 2012-13 budget proposal, which calls for an $8 billion program to train students for jobs in high-demand industries.

One day later, the Civil Rights Project at UCLA released a series of reports warning that California’s economic future is threatened by abysmal transfer rates from community colleges to four-year colleges, especially for Latino and African American students. Those rates, according to the studies, are a direct result of extreme racial and economic segregation in high school.

“When you’re in 9th grade we can predict with high precision whether you’re going to be able to transfer from a community college, because of how far behind you’re going to be when you get to community college,” said Civil Rights Project co-director Patricia Gándara, who is co-author of Building Pathways to Transfer.

Transfer rates by level of high school resources. (Source:  Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.
Transfer rates by level of high school resources. (Source: Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.

Gándara and her team found that 30 percent of community college students who attended the lowest wealth high schools transferred to a four-year college, compared with more than 53 percent of students from high wealth high schools. The disparity is much larger when those numbers are broken down by race and ethnicity. Although nearly 75 percent of all Latino students and two-thirds of African American students who go on to higher education start at a community college, they comprised only 20 percent of all students who transferred to a four-year college or university.

At the other end, the authors write that “a handful of community colleges serving high percentages of white, Asian and middle class students are responsible for the majority of all transfers in the state.”

In a second report released by the Civil Rights Project, titled Unrealized Promises: Unequal Access, Affordability, and Excellence at Community Colleges in Southern California, the researchers found that the most segregated high schools with the fewest resources and weakest academic achievement tend to feed students into segregated community colleges, where many of them get stuck in years of remedial classes and never advance.

“Unfortunately, the community colleges tend to repeat the patterns of the low performing high schools, resulting in few transfers; this makes a mockery of the promise of equal opportunity,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project.

Transfer rates from community college to four-year college, by race and ethnicity.  (Source:  Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.
Transfer rates from community college to four-year college, by race and ethnicity. (Source: Civil Rights Project, UCLA). Click to enlarge.

Student Success Task Force not enough

In California, community colleges are the backbone of the higher education system, serving more than two-and-a-half million students a year who have diverse needs and goals. Some are seeking an associate’s degree, some a certificate in a skilled profession such as nursing or welding, and others hope to transfer to a four-year college to earn a bachelor’s degree. The 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education includes all those choices and more.

After half a century it became clear that the plan for community colleges needed revising. So last year, the Student Success Task Force on community colleges, established by the Legislature, developed a set of 22 recommendations to improve and accelerate the time it takes for students to earn credentials, earn degrees, or transfer.

Orfield wasn’t critical of the report – “I’m not belittling it,” he assured – but he was unenthusiastic, saying the recommendations tend to tweak around the edges of a problem that needs a full-scale structural reform.  “It wasn’t a call for saying let’s redo the structure of higher education in California because it’s a catastrophe. It means that most of the kids who are growing up in this state aren’t going to have a reasonable chance to get what they need to be middle class families; that’s just absolutely critical to the future of California.”

Even colleges singled out in the Building Pathways to Transfer report for having a disproportionately high rate of transfers didn’t do it by making institutional changes.  It was more a case where a group of faculty and staff took it upon themselves to help students, said Gándara.

“Somebody has to demonstrate the interest; there’s nothing systemic that’s happens here,” Gándara said.  “So it isn’t like the chancellor’s office says, ‘Okay, this is something we’ve got to do, let’s get on board.’  It’s hit or miss.”

Giving Bachelor’s a chance

California doesn’t do too well on college completion even at four-year colleges and universities, according to Beyond the Master Plan:  The Case for Restructuring Baccalaureate Education in California.   First released in 2010, this report was also posted yesterday on the Civil Rights Project website.  It’s co-authored by former University of California President Richard Atkinson.  Among its findings:

  • California ranks 43rd out of the 50 states in the proportion of its college-age population who earn baccalaureate degrees,
  • California community colleges now enroll 40-to-50 percent of all students seeking a baccalaureate degree.

Atkinson and co-author Saul Geiser of UC Berkeley, don’t lay all the blame for California’s anticipated shortage of qualified workers with college degrees on the favorite whipping boys of the economic downturn, the growing population of immigrants and the failure of community colleges.  They point to a decision made in 1960, a time when enrollment in the state’s public four-year and two-year colleges was almost equally divided.

“But in a cost-cutting move, the framers of the Master Plan limited eligibility for admission to UC and CSU to the top eighth and top third, respectively, of the state’s high school graduates, diverting many students to 2-year institutions,” they wrote.

The Student Success Task Force report already recommends streamlining the transfer process and providing incentives for students to move quickly toward their goals.  Orfield and Gándara would add to that allowing community colleges to offer B.A. degrees.  It would create more spaces for students seeking four-year degrees without the added step of transferring.  Geiser and Atkinson see too many challenges to that model, such as cost and accreditation problems, but do recommend a hybrid model through which four-year and two-year colleges would collaborate to offer B.A. degrees.

Such changes may not be an easy sell as the chair of the Assembly higher education committee found last session.  Assemblyman Marty Block [D- San Diego] introduced a AB 661, a bill that would have created a pilot program for B.A. degrees in two community college districts.  It died on the inactive file.

Students can’t get “passed” math

Every year about 220 students at De Anza College in Cupertino voluntarily sign up for a yearlong double dose of math classes. It’s not easy to get in; about 700 students at the community college apply for the program, known as Math Performance Success (MPS). The main requirement for admission – besides applying early – is having a bad history with math. These are students who have failed a math course once or twice, or who have dropped out of the class.

Over three consecutive quarters, the program takes students from basic skills, such as elementary algebra, through college-level statistics, which is one of the required courses for students planning to transfer to the University of California or California State University. Over nine years, from 2001 to 2010, pass rates for MPS students were 18 to 28 percent higher for each course than for students in the traditional sequence.

It’s a resource-heavy program. Students get tutoring, counseling, and extra-long classes. For faculty, there’s built-in collaboration among fellow teachers and with support staff. In most California community colleges, just 55 percent of students taking college-level math classes will pass them with a “C” or better; a new report from EdSource found that rate hasn’t really changed in 20 years.

There’s been a lot of research on the sorry rate of completing basic skills classes, but the EdSource study, Passing When it Counts, reveals that even students who are deemed ready for college

Passing rates of college-level math by race and ethnicity. (Source:  EdSource) Click to enlarge.
Passing rates of college-level math by race and ethnicity. (Source: EdSource) Click to enlarge.

math are struggling to pass. Those rates vary by race and ethnicity. African American students passed 41 percent of the time; Latino students had a 49 percent pass rate; it was 60 percent for white students and 65 percent for Asian students. But those figures only apply to students who remained in the courses; between 18 and 30 percent dropped them.

“You probably find the same thing in every state, because math is a huge stumbling block,” said Nancy Shulock, director of the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at Sacramento State University. “I don’t know when and why this country got into such a math phobia, but it’s a terrible problem.”

Her own research found that how well and how quickly students complete college-level math in community college turns out to be a strong predictor of success. Steps to Success, a 2009 report that Shulock co-authored, found that students who passed college-level math within two years after enrolling in a community college were nearly three times as likely to earn a certificate or degree or transfer to a four-year college as students who didn’t finish in that time frame.

Schools matter

In addition to the gap by race and ethnicity, EdSource also found a significant disparity among colleges themselves. At 21 of the state’s 112 community colleges, less that half the students who were enrolled in college-level math passed the classes. At 26 colleges, more than 60 percent passed. (Click here for an interactive map showing pass rates for each college.)

Variations in passing rates by community college. (Source: EdSource). Click to enlarge.
Variations in passing rates by community college. (Source: EdSource). Click to enlarge.

Although the study didn’t explore this inconsistency in detail, researcher Matthew Rosin writes that “possible reasons for this variation include students’ backgrounds and how long it has been since they last took a math course, the quality and ongoing evaluation of instruction, and how students are placed into these math classes.”

It may also be a factor of geography. In communities hit hard by the economic downturn, students may also be working full time and dealing with the stress of earning enough to pay the rent, feed their families, and pay for child care.

Sacramento State’s Nancy Shulock suggests something else at play: how math is being taught. De Anza’s program is one example of an innovative method. Nationally, there’s a movement toward contextualization, incorporating math into career programs and other subject areas. “Nationally, there’s a lot of effort going on about the ways to teach math,” said Shulock.  “The research is showing that students can engage more if there’s something that makes them see this is not just a math problem.”

LAO nixes Gov’s community college budget

Gov. Brown missed a chance to save millions for community colleges by reining in Board of Governors fee waivers, according to the Legislative Analyst’s Office. The LAO released its review of Brown’s 2012-13 higher education budget plan yesterday, and raised red flags on that program and on the governor’s proposals to make major changes in the way community colleges are funded, as well as big changes in categorical programs.

The report instead supports many of the recommendations in the recently released Student Success Task Force report, which was produced at the request of the Legislature.

“Enacting these changes would help the state better target resources toward CCC’s core missions, as well as create a strong incentive for students to achieve their educational goals within a reasonable time period. We thus recommend the Legislature enact these proposals,” wrote the LAO in its report.

The LAO’s analysis gave a fair amount of ink to the Board of Governors fee waivers, which have been increasing so rapidly that 70 percent of students may get a free ride next year. Already, the waivers have eaten into nearly the entire $110 million that community colleges were supposed to raise this academic year by raising fees from $26 to $36 per unit.

BOG fee waiver trends (Source: Leg. Analyst) click to enlarge.
BOG fee waiver trends (Source: Leg. Analyst) click to enlarge.

“A large financial aid program the governor does not address is that of the Board of Governors fee waiver program at the community colleges,” said the LAO’s managing principal analyst Steve Boilard in taped comments accompanying the report. “What we suggest are ways to rein in the costs of this program and to better leverage the program to increase student access.”

As the LAO notes, the Student Success Task Force has recommended just that. It calls for a higher threshold for aid – currently students have to show just $1 of need to qualify – and for requiring students to show progress toward their degree or transfer plan in order to continue receiving waivers.

Revamping funding system

To the relief of the Community College Chancellor’s Office, the LAO calls for a flat-out rejection of the governor’s proposal to change the way community colleges are funded. Dan Troy, the Vice Chancellor of Finance, said Gov. Brown wants to scrap the system of funding community colleges based on FTES, or full-time equivalent students, and replace it with something not fully developed.

For the 2012-13 school year, colleges would receive the same amount of funding they get this year, unless the Chancellor’s office comes up with an alternative methodology for allocating the money. “Changing a major $6 billion system of finance could have some unintended consequences,” said Troy. “I would suggest that if the governor wants to entertain changes or give more flexibility, we’re willing to engage in some discussion about it in a more deliberate manner.”

There’s little agreement among the Governor, the LAO or the Chancellor’s office when it comes to the proposal to consolidate funding for all 21 categorical programs into a single flex item.  Gov. Brown’s budget plan would also eliminate many of the community college mandates and give districts a lot of discretion on how they spend the money – nearly $400 million this year.  A few mandates would remain, including funding for the Foster Parent Education Program.

The LAO gives the plan a mixed review in its report:  “We agree that districts would benefit from more categorical flexibility. We have concerns, however, that the Governor’s approach could result in local decisions that undermine the Legislature’s original intent for these funds.”

The Student Success Task Force also expressed concerns about the bureaucratic inefficiency of requiring local campuses to manage nearly two dozen separate programs.  But the panel isn’t ready to propose a sweeping consolidation.  Instead, it calls on the legislature to streamline reporting requirements for the programs, and urges the colleges to “break down programmatic silos and voluntarily collaborate in an effort to improve the success of students.”

Dan Troy said the Chancellor’s office isn’t about to support any proposals that differ  from the Student Success Task Force proposals.  “We have a well vetted plan there,” he said, “and wouldn’t want to deviate from that.”

LAO wants to redirect QEIA funds

Nearly 30 percent of California schools funded under the Quality Education Investment Act, or QEIA, may be expelled from the program at the end of this academic year for not meeting one or more of the requirements. That could leave up to $140 million in QEIA funds on the table – money the Legislative Analyst says the state should use to fill in the gaps in other educational programs.

There’s one barrier to the proposal: the QEIA law forbids it. SB 1133, introduced in 2006 by former state senator and current State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson, requires that any funds left over when schools are removed from the program stay in the program. The money would be divided among the remaining schools for cost-of-living and enrollment increases.

Gov. Brown's plan to pay off QEIA and other temporary programs. (Source: LAO). Click to enlarge.
Gov. Brown's plan to pay off QEIA and other temporary programs. (Source: LAO). Click to enlarge.

The LAO acknowledges as much in its just released analysis of Gov. Brown’s 2012-13 education budget plan. The report recommends a statutory change to free up the money. It faces formidable opposition, and not just from Superintendent Torlakson, but possibly from higher up. Unlike much of the LAO’s report, which analyzes the governor’s budget proposals, this idea came directly from the legislative analyst.

“That is our recommendation,” said Edgar Cabral, one of the LAO’s education analysts. “The governor did not make that recommendation, and I doubt he would.”

State Board of Education president Michael Kirst said in an email that he wouldn’t support the plan either, and suggested that any changes “might also have to go back to the court as well as the Legislature.”

Stepping back

QEIA grew out of a lawsuit filed by the California Teachers Association against Gov. Schwarzenegger for reneging on a promise to repay school districts and community colleges $2 billion taken from Proposition 98 in 2004-05 in order to help get the state through a budget crisis. When state revenues increased that year, schools should have received an additional $1.8 billion under the Prop 98 guarantee. Instead, the governor based the 2005-06 school funding guarantee on the lower amount from the previous year.

QEIA funding by grade. (Source: County Supes Association-CCSESA). Click to enlarge.
QEIA funding by grade. (Source: County Supes Association-CCSESA). Click to enlarge.

Under the settlement, schools in API deciles 1 and 2 were eligible to apply for QEIA funds, but there was only enough money for about 500 of the nearly 1,500 schools in the lowest rankings. The numbers have fluctuated some since the program began in 2007-08, and there are now 474 schools – and that number is falling – in the program.

The latest reporting from County Offices of Education to the State Department of Education (as yet unpublished) shows that 137 QEIA schools haven’t met at least one requirement of the program. They include:

  • Class size reduction: A maximum of 20 students in grades K to 3 and 25 students in grades 4 through 12,
  • School counselors: Must have a student-counselor ratio of no more than 300:1,
  • Highly qualified teachers: All teachers must meet the standards for highly qualified teachers in No Child Left Behind,
  • Professional development: Develop a coherent plan for professional development and track participation by teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals,
  • Teacher experience index (TEI): Teachers at QEIA schools must have an average level of teaching experience at or above the average of the entire school district for the same type of school, and
  • API: The average API growth scores from 2008-09, 2009-10, and 2010-11 must exceed the school’s average API target for those same three years.

By law, these schools could be terminated from the program beginning next fall, but the State Board of Education has begun granting waivers from a few of the provisions. As of its meeting last month, the Board has approved 45 waiver requests and denied five from the class size reduction requirement, and approved three waivers from the teacher experience index and four under highly qualified teachers.

Board members drew the line, however, at waivers for not meeting API targets.  “This is the main goal of QEIA; I really have difficulty saying we can waive student achievement,” said board member Yvonne Chan at last month’s meeting, before a unanimous vote to deny five waiver requests for academic performance.  At last count, 70 QEIA schools have fallen short of their API targets.

The California Teachers Association, which led the charge for QEIA through its lawsuit, notes that even if every school that hasn’t met all the requirements is booted from the program, the overwhelming number of schools will remain.  Considering that California schools have absorbed about $20 billion in cuts in the past few year, “it’s very promising that so many QEIA school weathered that storm and are making progress,” said CTA spokesman Mike Myslinski.

That’s why the CTA will oppose any effort to take money that would otherwise provide those QEIA survivors with a little extra funding, said Myslinksi.   “For us, the law is very clear that any so-called excess money really needs to go back to the schools.”

A push for free college textbooks

During his nearly four years at UC Berkeley, Lucas Zucker has gone to great lengths to find affordable textbooks. He shopped online for the best deals and often waited weeks into the semester for the books to arrive from across the country; he shared books with classmates; he bought older editions with identical content that was rearranged; and one semester he didn’t buy some books because they were just too expensive.

“I couldn’t imagine what could possibly make any book cost $200,” the senior told members of the Joint Legislative Audit Committee at a hearing Wednesday afternoon.

Increases in textbook prices now outpace the rate of fee increases at the University of California and California State University, testified State Auditor Elaine Howle. As part of a 2008 report prepared at the committee’s request, Howle’s office surveyed students and found the average price of textbooks represents about 13 percent of the cost of a UC education, 22 percent at Cal State, and 59 percent for community college students – more than they pay for classes.

A survey by the consumer group CALPIRG revealed that 70 percent of students found themselves in the same predicament as Zucker and didn’t buy at least one required textbook due to the cost.

Student fees at UC and CSU rose by about 18 percent from 2004–05 through 2007–08, while the retail price for the textbooks increased by 28 percent. (Source: California Auditor) Click to enlarge.
Student fees at UC and CSU rose by about 18 percent from 2004–05 through 2007–08, while the retail price for the textbooks increased by 28 percent. (Source: California Auditor) Click to enlarge.

At a time when fees at California’s public colleges and universities are rising faster than an econ major can calculate the rate of inflation, the added burden of spending thousands of dollars on books is the college deal breaker for some students. So the committee focused much of the three-hour hearing on what California is doing to develop free digital texts.

“We have a completely broken system,” said former state senator Dean Florez, now president and CEO of 20 Million Minds Foundation, a nonprofit working to provide open source texts than can be modified by professors to create customized books for their classes. “Digital gives us a unique opportunity to end used books, to say that students can purchase a new, up-to-date book every time for the lowest possible cost.”

A number of companies have already entered the arena, the splashiest being Apple, which last month unveiled its new iBooks 2 digital textbook service for the iPad. It features interactive animation, photos, videos, and other cool tools, but requires cash-strapped schools to buy iPads for every student.

Nonprofits and foundations are offering something that’s more within reach.

“Access and affordability are integrally linked,” said Barbara Chow, Education Program Director for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. She told the panel research has shown that while rental and e-books can reduce costs, “open educational texts are the clear winners,” reducing textbook prices by as much as 80 percent.

Chow noted that a number of universities outside California have made significant advances in access and quality of the online materials.  Although there is an upfront cost of producing the materials, she said the savings can quickly catch up.  An open course library in the state of Washington recouped its start-up costs in the first year.

Arizona State University took it a step further.  A machine in the bookstore lets students print open source texts for $20, so they have a hard copy to write notes in the margins and highlight passages.

In 2008, Hewlett invested $10 million in grants to develop Open Educational Resources (OER), including more than half a million dollars to the Foothill-De Anza Community College District to pilot the Community College Open Textbook Project. It’s now affiliated with more than 200 colleges and conducts peer reviews of open source textbooks and works to raise awareness of the online books among faculty.

Even though open source gives faculty more control over their course materials, many have been slow to take to it.  “There are real challenges here with this new world of multiple formats,” explained James Postma, chair of the CSU Academic Senate.  “Faculty have to play the role of technical troubleshooters.  It has changed the job of faculty.”  For instance, Postma has to develop correlation guides so students know where to find the reading assignments depending on whether they’re using an iPad, iPod or laptop.

In December, State Senate pro Tem Darrell Steinberg made open source a key legislative initiative with a proposal to create Open Educational Resources in California that would give undergraduates free access to fifty core textbooks, and let them buy printed copies for about $20.  He said the legislation would save students nearly $1,000 a year.  [Click here to watch a YouTube video of his press conference announcing the proposal].

Textbook publishers weren’t vilified at the hearing, but they were taken to the woodshed for their practice of publishing new editions every few years that have minimal changes in content, but move the chapters around enough to make it confusing for students working with earlier versions.  For that, they up the price by about 12 percent.

Bruce Hildebrand, Executive Director of the Higher Education Division of the Association of American Publishers, walked a fine line at the hearing, wanting to play nicely while not giving up too much profit. “We were committed to the [state auditor’s] report, but as you can expect, we were cautious,” said Hildebrand.  “It’s going to have to be a partnership.  Are our prices coming down?  Yes, in some instances.”

Publishers may want to get those partnerships going sooner than later if they hope to remain relevant and solvent.  Groups like 20 Million Minds have already created a lot of alternative materials and there’s a demand for more, especially from students, said CSU’s Postma. “The term textbook is almost obsolete in this world.”

Big change for community colleges

The California Community Colleges Board of Governors approved far-reaching recommendations Monday to increase graduation and transfer rates, including rationing access to classes.

The vote on the Student Success Task Force proposals followed more than three hours of emotional public comments, occasionally veering into angry outbursts that prompted the Board president to warn he’d call off the remainder of the public testimony.

“I was hoping for a civil discussion,” said Board president Scott Himelstein, who nonetheless said it was good for the Board members to hear the strong opinions about the recommendations.

The most controversial elements in the package of 22 reforms provide carrots and sticks to encourage students to enroll full time and stay on track toward earning associate degrees, earning certificates, or transferring to four-year colleges and universities.

Those students would get priority enrollment, along with first-time students who take part in college orientation, undergo college-readiness assessments, and develop education plans; and students who start taking any remedial classes they need during their first year.

The recommendations also set conditions for students to receive Board of Governors fee waivers, including excluding students who have more than 110 units – nearly twice as many as needed for a degree or transfer – with no completion goal in sight.

Dozens of community college students in the packed hearing room in the State Capitol argued that those restrictions would have the opposite of their intended effect and drive away the poorest students, who can take only one or two classes a semester because they have families to support and need to work.

Students also questioned the Task Force’s definition of success, arguing that just being in community college is a triumph for some people.

“My story is the exact opposite of the definition of success within the document you’ve been presented with,” said Joseph Fitzgerald, a 25-year-old student at City College of San Francisco. After a series of family tragedies, Fitzgerald said he had to learn to fend for himself by the time he was ten years old. When he finally enrolled at City College, he had never learned how to do homework, study, or manage his time.

“The fact that I could take these classes and not be punished in terms of fee waivers or financial aid, and being able to fail was vital to me becoming a mature adult,” said Fitzgerald. “Being able to stray from my educational plan, and not be on a strict plan that kept me on one track, allowed me to take a number of classes that helped me find my passion.”

Legislative mandate

The Task Force was created last January through Senate Bill 1143, authored by State Senator Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge), after several reports found dismal completion rates at the state’s community colleges.

Currently, only about 30 percent of students complete an associate degree or a certificate, or transfer to a four-year college or university within six years, according to Divided We Fail, a 2010 report by the Institute for Higher Education Leadership & Policy at Sacramento State University. The numbers are even lower for Latinos and African American students: 20 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

Jeannette Zanipatin, legislative staff attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), told Board members such low levels of student success require “transformative change” throughout the community college system, even if the resources aren’t immediately available.

“MALDEF understands that these are challenging times for the community college system and its students,” said Zanipatin, “but educational attainment by the students enrolled in the system must be improved, and racial and ethnic disparities among students must be eliminated.”

Implementation is key

Monday’s action may have marked the end of the Student Success Task Force, but it signaled the beginning of a more difficult phase in the process: implementation of the recommendations.

Likely state agency required to approve implementation of Student Success Task Force recommendations. (source:  Board of Governors).  Click to enlarge.
Likely state agency required to approve implementation of Student Success Task Force recommendations. (source: Board of Governors). Click to enlarge.

Some are regulatory changes that can be accomplished by the Board of Governors; and those will probably start coming up for a vote at the next meeting in March.  Others require statutory change and will have to go to the state legislature for action.  Board members are expected to vote today on which state agencies need to approve each recommendation.

Once they’re parsed out, there will be more opportunity for public comments and complaints.

Looming over these proposals, however, is the state of community college funding in California.  They have lost nearly a billion dollars in the past three fiscal years as a result of the state’s massive deficits.  Even though community colleges essentially have open admissions, so many classes and course sections have been cut that about 130,000 students were turned away due to lack of space.

That could jeopardize some of the recommendations, in particular the measures to hold orientation sessions for new students and require them to develop education plans.  Providing that kind of individual support would require an increase in the number of counselors, who currently are assigned a minimum of 900 students each.  Hiring enough to provide the guidance that students really need would cost about $300 million, according to a back-of-the-envelope estimate by Linda Michalowski, the Vice Chancellor of Student Services, an amount she says they’ll never get.

In addition, task force members withdrew recommendations that would have cut the CalWorks program, which provides childcare, work study and job development for students who receive state assistance.  However, when Gov. Brown released his 2012-13 budget proposal last week, he recommended a $1 billion cut to CalWORKS.

The Board of Governors also eliminated a proposal to consolidate some categorical programs after getting an earful of complaints.  Gov. Brown’s budget plan would reinstate it.

“The Budget proposes to consolidate nearly all categorical programs and provide flexibility to CCC to use “flexed” funds for any categorical program purpose. This proposal will improve student access and success and will provide the colleges with more local control, flexibility, and decision‑making authority. The Administration will review the recommendations of the forthcoming Student Success Task Force report and explore other possibilities for expanding flexibility— including fee policy changes and loosening operational restrictions— for inclusion in the May Revision.”

There is at least one area where the Board of Governors is in agreement with Gov. Brown; unless his tax proposal is approved in November, preventing further cuts, getting through community college won’t be nearly as difficult as getting in.

Budget: more control, little cash

California schools could gain billions or once again face the threat of a midyear budget cut under the 2012-13 budget proposal released in Sacramento yesterday by Gov. Jerry Brown.

At a hastily called news conference, held after the budget was accidentally posted days ahead of schedule on his finance department’s website, the Governor presented a plan for closing the

Gov. Brown presents 2012-13 budget in Sacramento
Gov. Brown presents 2012-13 budget in Sacramento

state’s $9.2 billion budget gap that’s contingent upon approval of his $7 billion tax initiative. And he presented the evil-twin plan in case the tax measure is defeated.

Brown said if voters support his plan to raise sales and income taxes in November “we will eliminate the budget deficit, finally, after years of kicking the can down the road.”

For K-12 schools and community colleges new tax revenues would bring an increase of $4.9 billion in 2012-13, for a total Proposition 98 funding level of $52.5 billion. That would boost per-pupil spending from $7,096 this year to $7,815 next year. But even if the tax plan wins, most of that money will be little more than a specter in classrooms. Brown’s proposal would use $2.1 billion to backfill this year’s deferral and another $2.1 billion to start paying off the $10 billion in deferrals already accrued.

What’s more, the plan still doesn’t provide for a cost of living increase of 3.1 percent, which would be added to a growing multi-billion IOU known as the maintenance factor.

Past, current and proposed per pupil funding. (source:  Governor's budget summary: 2012-13). Click to enlarge.
Past, current, and proposed per-pupil funding. (Source: Governor's budget summary: 2012-13). Click to enlarge.

Dan Troy, the Community College Vice Chancellor for Fiscal Policy, says he understands strategically why the governor wants to bring down the debt before funding new programs, but, at the same time, he says the colleges could really use the money after losing $102 million in last month’s midyear trigger cuts, raising fees by 77 percent in less than two years, and receiving no cost of living increase since 2007-08.

“Technically the $218 million does count,” said Troy, referring to the amount of money the state’s community colleges would gain under the budget plan. “We just can’t buy anything with it.”

Still, it’s better than more cuts, and that’s what will happen if voters don’t approve the governor’s tax plan, or one of the other initiatives to fund education that are currently competing for ballot space.

Two things would happen if the revenues don’t pass, said state Finance Director Ana Matosantos. First, it would trigger a $4.8 billion reduction in Prop 98 that would amount to the equivalent of three weeks of school. That doesn’t mean that the school year would be shortened by three weeks; it’s meant to illustrate how much money is at stake.

The other cut is more convoluted. It would shift or “rebench” the debt payments from the state’s K-14 general obligation bonds from the General Fund to Prop 98, giving schools and community colleges a brand new $2.4 billion expense. Ah, but it’s not all bad; Matosantos said that would preclude a suspension of Prop 98.

Consolidation consternation

Lost in much of the rollout yesterday was a sweeping change proposed to how schools are funded. The governor wants to move to a weighted-student formula, which you can read about today in John Fensterwald’s column.

Brown also wants to give local districts more decision-making power over how they spend their money, and he aims to do that by increasing flexibility for most remaining categorical programs (with the exception of federally-mandated programs, such as special education and foster care), even seemingly sacred cows like class size reduction.

“That means if they think they can save some money by adding a few kids to a class instead of something else then they can do that, that’s their choice,” said Brown. “I have confidence that the local democracy is at least as vigorous and as responsive as our statewide democracy.”

Some advocates and legislators are alarmed by the possible unintended consequences this could have on hard-won programs. Senator Joe Simitian’s (D-Palo Alto) legislation that just became law in 2010, which increases the kindergarten entrance age but provides funding for the younger children to attend transitional kindergarten, could be wiped out before it really gets going.

“The Administration’s budget proposal is a $700 million hit to K-12 education at the expense of 4-year-olds and their families,” said Simitian, referring to the three-year implementation costs for the program. “The notion that 250,000 parents and their 125,000 kids are no longer eligible to begin school in the fall is a non-starter.”

Another program that may be eliminated is Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, which provides extra study skills and support to help prepare high school students who could be the first in their family to attend college.

Higher Ed remains flat

The budget plan for the University of California and California State University is essentially status quo, which doesn’t sit well with CSU Chancellor Charles Reed. In a statement on the Cal State website, Reed said the governor’s proposed $2 billion for CSU is the lowest state support for the system in 15 years, even though Cal State enrolls 95,000 more students today than it did back then.

“We cannot continue down this budget path and expect that we can offer the same number of courses to the same number of students and maintain quality,” said Reed, adding that “we are just about out of options, and if the state does not begin to reinvest in the CSU, we will need to take more drastic measures including cutting enrollment and programs, raising tuition, and reducing personnel.”

Gov. Brown made a point of saying that he thinks higher education has been hit too hard already and he’d like to find a way of getting them more money to avoid any further tuition increases. So far, his budget plan doesn’t contain any specifics on how to do that, but it would chop another $100 million each from UC and CSU if the tax plan fails.