By Rosemarie Bezerra-Nader
The rapid and extreme pendulum swing from the Basic Skills Initiative (BSI) that began in 2006 and culminated with the full implementation of Assembly Bill 705 in the fall of 2019 swept away advantages for a vast number of students, even as it has helped others. The unintended negative consequences of AB 705 could have been eliminated by blending the best of AB 705 and BSI together with common sense.
BSI created foundational classes that prepared students for higher math or qualifying tests like the ASVAB military test or TEAS nursing test, as well as satisfying other goals such as self-improvement and job advancement. Yet AB 705 focuses almost exclusively on increasing the number of transfer students.
While equity is the goal of AB 705, the bill actually devalues diversity and the role community colleges have traditionally played for returning students. The expectation that all students want and are able to earn degrees within two years is unrealistic. The needs of students across California varies dramatically.
For instance, after failing a transfer class like algebra or statistics three times, is a returning student likely to continue, or become resigned to being “stuck” with a low-paying job? How equitable is it to expect single, working parents to complete transfer math and English classes within one year? How equitable is it to place a recently-released parolee in 15 units of classes including a transfer math or English class?
Is it equitable that underprepared students will be denied financial aid per AB 705 guidelines, while academically higher-performing students in transfer classes are not only eligible for financial aid but also frequently have the advantage of higher-paying part-time jobs than their counterparts?
Yuba College instructor John Almay, author of “The Fast Lane to Nowhere”, admired the dedicated instructors of the acceleration movement and their goals, but also stated, “You do not accelerate people who do not know the basics.”
AB 705 rewards colleges for increasing the number of students who complete transfer English and Math classes within one year. In Almay’s words, will this contribute to the “bogus sea of diplomas and degrees we already have?” Instructors may succumb to subtle or direct pressure to increase passing rates in response to job-security concerns by diluting content, leading to another unintended consequence of AB 705: the eventual decline of many colleges’ reputations.
Many claims are made and will continue to be made about the effectiveness of AB 705. With the current emphasis on teaching statistics, it would be hypocritical to blindly accept claims and conclusions. In colleges where BSI classes are no longer offered, there will be no appropriate control against which to compare new classes and procedures resulting from AB 705. The funding guidelines in AB 705 encourage administrators to eliminate nontransferable classes. These basic classes do not affect GPA, encouraging students to justify not attending as the semester ends. This leads to failing grades that quickly reduce the numerical success rate and distort the real value of the class in the minds of administrators.
Many innovative BSI classes have not yet reached their full potential. A relatively new BSI pre-STEM arithmetic class was taking root at one school and was supported by testimonials by former students as well as hundreds of other students who signed a petition of interest to take the class. Like all the arithmetic and pre-algebra classes this class was not scheduled. Worse, these classes were deleted from the catalog preventing students from even considering whether or not they needed these classes.
As the pendulum of change swings and proposals are made to promote and accelerate learning, modification, not elimination, would be the most efficient path to take. Equitable learning would be better accomplished by respecting the diverse educational needs and goals of the unique communities in which students live. It is especially important to remain acutely aware of the broad diversity within California, realizing the state is often recognized as the most diverse state in the nation.
Some Suggestions for Blending BSI with AB705:
- Create an OPTIONAL placement test, and for legal purposes require students to sign a statement acknowledging that they were free to enroll in any class that did not include a prerequisite.
- Retain optional sections of basic classes, especially a comprehensive foundational arithmetic class students can CHOOSE to take.
- Promote equity, by retaining and fully financing a limited number of foundational classes.
- Give non-transfer classes the benefit of units and financial aid, possibly less than that for transfer classes.
- Print the balance of financial aid available to each student on grade reports to facilitate them in making responsible decisions.
For more suggestions regarding the blending of AB 705 and BSI, email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Rosemarie Bezerra-Nader, a developmental math instructor at Fresno City College for 28 years, also taught math, English, and critical thinking in Grades 7 – 9 as well as professional development classes for teachers at Fresno State University. She discovered the lack of advanced arithmetic concepts was the source of her own difficulty in chemistry years ago, and it still is for many students today. This discovery fueled her 17-year passion to network with STEM colleagues and tirelessly develop contextualized math curriculum with the goal of increasing student interest and success in STEM. Rosemarie’s contextualized math curriculum evolved into a book entitled Arithmetic 4 Success (Kendall Hunt Publishing).
*This article was originally published in the fall 2019 edition of FACCCTS. FACCC blog posts are submitted by FACCC members and do not necessarily reflect the formal views or positions of FACCC.