California’s AB 705 Narrowed Equity Gaps in Gateway Math and English, but There’s More Work to Do

By Marisol Cuellar Mejia, Olga Rodriguez, and Hans Johnson

College students smile at each other

After years of important but piecemeal reforms, a landmark law completely reshaped placement and remediation of California’s community college students and led to gains in access to gateway English and math courses on a scale that would have been difficult to imagine just three or four years ago. Moreover, the nation’s largest system of higher education made great strides in eliminating longstanding inequities in access, as historically underrepresented students saw dramatic gains. But even with this extraordinary progress, the work is not over. Latinos and African Americans continue to see lower completion rates in gateway courses than their peers.

In a recent report, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) examined what happened during the first term of statewide implementation of AB 705, which requires colleges to implement changes that would maximize the number of students completing transfer-level (or degree-appropriate) coursework in English or math within one year and also to use information like high school GPA or prior coursework as the primary criteria for placement recommendations.

The results were nothing short of remarkable. Access to gateway English was nearly universal, and more than three-quarters of students bypassed remediation and enrolled directly in a gateway math course [1]. This is a staggering change: Compared to fall 2015, access rates more than doubled in English and nearly quadrupled in math. Perhaps even more remarkable is the fact that gaps in access to gateway courses for Latino and African American students were nearly eliminated in English and narrowed significantly in math.

Increased access had a dramatic effect on success: 61% of all students taking English for the first time—including those who started in remediation and those who started directly in gateway courses—successfully completed a gateway course in one term (known as one-term throughput); 40% of all students taking math for the first time did so, which is more than double what we saw in fall 2015. This translates to over 57,000 more students successfully completing a college composition course and about 31,000 more students successfully completing gateway math between fall 2015 and fall 2019. The large increase in the number of students successfully completing these courses highlights the extent to which the previous system misplaced students in remediation when they could have been successful in the gateway math and English courses.

Overall, completion of gateway courses increased about 20 to 25 percentage points for all racial and ethnic groups. Gains in successful completions were particularly strong among African American and Latino students. But despite improvements, Latino and, especially, African American students continued to complete gateway courses at lower rates than their peers, particularly in math. In fall 2015, Latino students represented 31% of successful completions of gateway math courses and 51% of all first-time math students for a proportionality index of 0.61. By fall 2019, Latino students represented 43% of successful completions and 52% of all first-time math takers, for a proportionality index of 0.83. The closer to one this index is, the more equitable achievement is. The proportionality index for African American students in successful completions improved from 0.48 to 0.67 during the same period.

Why Equity Gaps Persist

What factors could be contributing to the persistence of racial equity gaps? Successful completion of the gateway course among first-time math or English takers reflects both access to gateway courses and successful completion of those courses. In English, given that access is now almost universal in the vast majority of the colleges, the racial gaps are largely the result of what happens in the classroom. In math, both factors play a role.

The 114 colleges in the system that are included in our research have made tremendous progress in expanding access to gateway courses [2]. Even so, some campuses have a relatively low share of students enrolling directly in gateway math: At 23 colleges, less than 65% of first-time math takers enroll in a gateway course. When access is restricted, it is African American and Latino students who are more often left out. Our analysis identifies several practices that may be limiting access in some colleges. Continuing to offer a significant number of remedial courses, even if they are not required, is one factor. Another is mandating multiple criteria for transfer-level placement (e.g., GPA and course grade threshold) instead of using an “either/or” approach. Showing students examples of math problems they might see in transfer-level courses, along with other self-assessments, reduces students’ chances of enrolling directly in gateway courses. Indeed, self-assessments of academic and study skills were common parts of the guided self-placement process [3] for colleges with lower levels of access in math. These self-assessments could lead students, especially those with low levels of confidence or with family or work obligations, to take developmental coursework even when they could be successful in transfer-level courses.

Faculty and staff interviews shed more light on why racial equity gaps persist. Faculty members shared that they felt not all students were getting the academic and student supports they needed to be able to succeed in the classroom. To make progress, faculty members highlighted the need for culturally relevant pedagogy, curricular materials, and activities to help all students become “invested in the topics discussed in class.” Interviewees also highlighted the roles of several other factors that are key in helping to support more equitable outcomes. These features included: a collaborative learning environment; “productive struggle;” an equity-centered teaching approach that addresses faculty members’ unconscious biases; and the affective domain—strategies that help students acquire skills like time management, study skills, goal setting, and the ability to seek services and supports, which they need to be a successful college student. Finally, many of our interviewees stressed that the challenges posed by factors such as homelessness, student hunger, mental health struggles, and the need to work, have an important impact on students’ course performance.

Our interviews also suggested that it can be difficult to come to terms with the idea that the courses may be failing the students, rather than the other way around. Ongoing professional development will be key to support faculty members, counselors, and advisors in adjusting to the widespread changes under AB 705 and cultivating a belief that all students can succeed. Communities of practice focused on equity that include training on implicit biases and the opportunity to use course-level data disaggregated by race and ethnicity to improve teaching and learning may help with these efforts.

Corequisite Models of Remediation Can Shrink Equity Gaps

With more students enrolling directly in gateway courses, corequisite models of remediation have played a key role in supporting student success. Our research finds that completion rates for both Latino and African American students are more equitable in corequisite college composition, gateway statistics, and liberal arts math courses than when they take the course without corequisite support. Faculty teaching corequisite courses discussed how certain features of the course’s pedagogy and curriculum, as well as the professional development provided to faculty, may be contributing to more equitable outcomes.

However, it’s not clear that all students who could benefit from corequisite support are getting it: While most colleges offer corequisite courses, only about 20% of first-time students in English and 18% in math enrolled in these courses. In English, 76% of the remainder of students took the gateway course without support and 4% started in a remedial course. Meanwhile, in math, 60% took the gateway course alone and 22% went into remediation.

Moreover, 61% of African American, 55% of Latino, 37% of White, and 31% of Asian first-time math students who enrolled in a gateway course without corequisite support in fall 2019 did not successfully complete the course—higher than in previous terms. Some of these students could have succeeded with additional corequisite support. These statistics are a loud call for colleges to find mechanisms to ensure that students who could benefit from extra support enroll in corequisite remediation. This could be accomplished by offering more corequisite courses, requiring corequisite support for more students, and helping counselors and advisors make a stronger case to students about the advantages of corequisite remediation. Well-designed and broadly available corequisite models could become a powerful weapon in the fight to reduce racial inequities.

Achieving equitable outcomes for African American and Latino students will require a sustained, multi-pronged approach. This is all the more important as the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic instability have upended students’ lives and exacerbated inequities for students lacking access to technology, facing job loss, or struggling to meet their basic needs.

This research would not have been possible without the student-level data provided by the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office. Views represented here do not necessarily represent the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office.

Marisol Cuellar Mejia and Olga Rodriguez are research fellows at the PPIC Higher Education Center. Hans Johnson is director of the PPIC Higher Education Center and a senior fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California, where he holds the Thomas and Marilyn Sutton Chair in Higher Education Policy.
  1. ^The focus of our research is on first-time English/math students because these students provide us with cleaner comparisons of outcomes pre- and post-implementation of AB 705. Of course, AB 705 implementation also impacted continuing students (i.e. students with previous enrollments in remedial courses or students with previous enrollments in transfer-level courses without success). This leads us to believe that the number of students who have benefited from this policy change is larger than the findings of this report indicate.
  2. ^Excluding Calbright, California’s online community college, there are 115 community colleges in the system. At the time of AB 705’s passage, there were 114 colleges, all of which were included in our research.
  3. ^In California, guided self-placement (GSP) does not require meeting with a counselor or advisor. Instead, GSP primarily relies on guiding a student’s decision-making by providing them with information and tools to help them self-assess their readiness for different levels of math or English coursework. As part of the GSP process, students are typically asked to reflect on their academic history, educational goals, and course descriptions, and to complete self-assessments of their comfort and familiarity with math and English topics. After completing the process, students receive their course placement.