Students Are Ready. We Need to Recognize It.

By Tammi Marshall

A professor wearing a mask helps a student in class

For years, when students have gone to college, they have been forced to take some type of placement test. We, educators, then used those results to determine whether students were ready for college-level classes. Unfortunately, more than half of community college students (and at some institutions, as many as 80% of students) were told they were not ready and needed to enroll in remedial classes in math and/or English. These extra units didn’t count toward a college degree but did increase students’ debt.

Consider the emotional toll this takes on students: Imagine you think you are ready for college, but when you get there, you are told you must spend as many as four semesters in remedial work.

On top of that are the racial performance gaps this remedial system has produced. Many of our Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) students have been made to feel like they belong and are at risk of imposter syndrome. To add to this, research has shown that more than half of BIPOC students assigned to remedial math are placed three or more levels below college level. At my college, before recent reforms, only 4% of students who started three or more levels below transfer completed that transfer-level class. This adds to the inequities we see in college success and graduation rates for our Black and brown students.

This structure of testing and placement is based on the idea that one test tells us whether students are ready for college-level courses. However, these tests only tell us how well the student can do on a test at that moment in time. The reality is that students are ready. If only people would recognize that it is the structure and system that are broken, not the students we serve. Let’s turn that mirror around and not ask if the students are ready for college, but instead ask if we are ready for the students we are serving.

How do I know the students are ready? At Cuyamaca College (and many other community colleges and universities across the nation), we have stopped using placement tests altogether. In fact, Assembly Bill 705 in California has made it illegal for community colleges to use placement tests; there is similar legislation for the California State University and University of California systems. And our students are succeeding. Since these changes were implemented, 67% of Cuyamaca’s first-time students are completing a college-level math class in one year, compared to 31% pre-reform. In English, what we call the throughput rate went from 41% pre-reform to 70% post-reform. A long-time math instructor commented, “The students know more than you think they do, and they can do more on their own than you think.”

And while I have many student stories, I’ll tell you one. Mariam Shamon did not do well in her high school math classes and was often told she just wasn’t good at math. She came to Cuyamaca as a political science major and enrolled in statistics with corequisite support. She learned a lot that semester about her ability to grow and learn new material and earned an A. She decided to try precalculus with corequisite support because she wanted to see if she could do it. Again, she earned an A. From there, she went on to take the calculus sequence, transfer to San Diego State University, and graduate with a degree in civil engineering in May 2020. She is now working as a transportation engineer for the California Department of Transportation.

The reality is many faculty still resist change, preferring to believe the old structures must be best. They often say we must be dumbing down our courses or reducing the rigor, neither of which is true. Our courses haven’t changed, and more students are able to complete their math within their first year of college, a momentum point that increases a student’s chance of graduating.

When we first started this, we also often heard that these changes would track students into non-STEM fields, especially our BIPOC students. However, at Cuyamaca, the opposite has happened: The number of upper-level STEM courses has almost doubled. We looked at data to see how students who started in precalculus with corequisite support did in Calculus I versus those who started in precalculus, and there was little difference in their completion rate (70% versus 77%). Overall, our success rates in Calculus I have gone up over the last few years rather than declined. In addition, these students were equally successful in Calculus II, physics, and engineering classes. Disaggregating the data shows us there are still some performance gaps for our BIPOC students in Calculus I; however, these gaps are gone in the higher-level STEM classes. Our department is now focused on equity-minded teaching and learning to help eliminate any remaining performance gaps.

A change in mindset is what is really needed for the reforms to work and take root. A study of 150 faculty in thirteen different STEM fields showed that a faculty member’s mindset is the number one predictor of a student’s success in their course. It isn’t how long they have been teaching, whether they are tenured, or any other characteristic, but whether they truly believe in the student’s capacity to do the work. This study also showed there are huge equity implications involved in faculty mindset. Do you believe in your students’ ability or are you just creating gates to keep students out?

Let’s start recognizing the hard work our incoming students have already put in. All students should be placed into college-level classes. Yes, some students can use support through a corequisite course. But, either way, students can do the work. They are ready and can succeed. Will you let them?

Tammi Marshall is the Math Department chair at Cuyamaca College in El Cajon, California.