CSU’s First Steps Toward Improving Graduation Rates Have Impact

By Pamela Burdman  | Senior Project Director, Just Equations

In 2017, California State University leaders garnered both criticism and praise when they first announced their plan to phase out remedial courses. Not to mention a dose of skepticism — after all, it had been more than two decades since CSU’s trustees first announced their intent to end remedial education. At that point, despite a decades-long effort, more than a third of entering students were still taking remedial math courses in the summer or fall of their freshman year.

Now, CSU has finally reached its goal, thanks to revised policies. Data that CSU recently shared with Just Equations affirms that, as of last fall, the system had succeeded in eliminating traditional remedial courses. For the first time in decades, all new freshmen were assigned to credit-bearing, college-level math courses.

Key to this dramatic change are two shifts in policy: First, the system altered the way it determines whether students need to brush up on math in order to succeed in a college-level course. CSU eliminated placement tests with questionable validity, instead relying on high school performance, a more reliable predictor of students’ performance in college-level math. This approach is also likely to be more equitable, given research showing that disadvantaged students often perform below their capacity on standardized tests.

Second, CSU revised its approach to helping students who do need extra help: Rather than sentencing students to remedial courses that rehash high school material and delay students’ progress through college, the system now allows students to take college-level math courses while receiving additional support. Research has shown that such approaches have the potential to dramatically improve student success in college. At CSU, a portion of entering students are also directed to take “early start” review courses during the summer.

These policies are intended to improve graduation rates while eliminating equity gaps. The most recent data available show that 43 percent of African American students and 53 percent of Latino/a students graduate in six years compared to 65 percent of Asian students and 67 percent of white students.

A look at CSU’s data reveals that, taken together, these policies could help position more students, especially students of color, to succeed in college. In the past, nearly half (46 percent) of African-American students and a third (34 percent) of Latino/a students were considered below proficient in math and encouraged to take an early start summer course.

While some of these students finished their remedial requirements during the summer session, the bulk of them continued in non-credit remedial courses during the fall. Now, under the new placement algorithms, a much lower 27 percent of African American and 16 percent of Latino/a students are assigned to the summer session courses, according to our analysis of the new data. Unlike in the past, those courses offer some college credit — and they lead directly to college-level math courses.

The changes offer real potential to narrow equity gaps in CSU student outcomes and, ultimately, help more students graduate.

But enrolling all students in college-level math courses is just the first step. The real measure of the new policies’ effectiveness will be whether more students succeed in those courses and go on to earn degrees. Just Equations awaits more data from CSU that will begin to answer that question. Stay tuned for our next analysis.