According to recent studies on college dropouts, approximately 70 percent of Americans enroll at a four-year institution of higher education, but less than 50 percent will graduate. In fall 2016, the California State University system launched Graduation Initiative 2025, a statewide and systemwide, ambitious benchmark that aims to increase graduation rates for CSU transfer students and first-time freshmen.
Targeting first-time freshmen, the California State University, Northridge Michael D. Eisner College of Education joined forces this year with Project GRAD (Graduation Really Achieves Dreams) Los Angeles, a locally based nonprofit that has worked to foster greater education equity since 1999. The CSUN-Project GRAD partners aim to build a communication pipeline of sorts — a two-way pipeline — between high school teachers and university professors. The organizers behind the new initiative unveiled in spring 2013 a one-of-a-kind in California, fourth-year math course — Transition to College Math and Statistics (TCMS) — to prepare LA high school seniors for college-level math.
Project GRAD Los Angeles President and CEO Ford Roosevelt explained that lack of academic readiness leads many first-time freshmen to be unprepared for college-level math and English classes — forcing many into remediation classes, after they score low on the CSU English Placement Test and the Entry Level Mathematics exam between high school graduation and the start of freshman year.
“If high school students take remediation courses and don’t do well, their life in college is at risk,” Roosevelt said.
According to Project GRAD, more that 60 percent of high school seniors in the northeast San Fernando Valley place into remediation classes in math, English or both after taking the placement exams for the CSU system. If the students don’t pass their remediation courses within the first year, they are “stopped out” of the CSU and must attend community college to catch up. Only then may they return to the four-year university, which creates a major obstacle for many students, Roosevelt said.
“If we intervened earlier and trained [high school] teachers to have a course that would teach a little bit differently the critical thinking skills students need when they take the [placement] tests, they might do better,” he said.
Easing the Transition to College-Level Math
In 2013, in collaboration with LAUSD, CSUN and Project GRAD, the partners tested a 10-week pilot course for the TCMS course. The partners found that seniors who took the course achieved a 37 percent passage rate on the placement tests, compared to a 22 percent passage rate for those who did not.
“From that point, the course was expanded into a full-year course, approved by the CSU and [University of California] to satisfy a ‘C’ requirement of the ‘A to G’ course requirements,” Roosevelt said. “In the most recent academic year, the third year of full implementation in seven LAUSD schools, the success rate has risen to 61 percent of students needing either none or one remediation course only. Students may complete this required course in the summer before they enroll at CSUN. The district has reached out because they liked the results and now would like to roll this out at all LAUSD high schools — 160 [schools] in the next two years.”
So far, the optional math courses are available at seven high schools: San Fernando High School; Arleta High School; Sylmar High School; the Academy of Scientific Exploration, the Arts Theater Entertainment School and the Teacher Prep Academy at Cesar E. Chavez Learning Academies; and at the Los Angeles Downtown Magnets High School in Los Angeles.
“CSUN is the lead agency training the teachers. It’s a pretty big deal and can really change the conversation of what kids need to do to get ready and go right into college-level math,” Roosevelt said. “There’s a lot on the table, but CSUN — and particularly professor Katherine Stevenson — have been amazing partners to help make things come to fruition.”
The 23-university CSU system spends about $90 million a year on remediation courses — an amount CSUN and Project GRAD are now trying to re-allocate into college-level instruction courses at LA high schools.
“There is a lack of communication between different segments — high schools, community colleges, CSUs and UCs,” said Katherine Stevenson, professor of mathematics and director of Developmental Mathematics at CSUN. “If there is no communication and if we don’t understand what the different expectations are, then it seems like we have actually built a gap in our system. If you want high school teachers to listen to college teachers — and college teachers to listen to high school teachers — the only way you can achieve that is to have an authentic task that everybody is engaged in.
“We have an interest in having students arrive [at the university] and not need to have developmental math (remediation courses),” Stevenson said. “That is what we’re going to be looking at as our gold standard. Hopefully, [students] place into college-level mathematics and quantitative reasoning courses, and they are successful in those classes — that’s the absolute goal.”
Beyond Math: Fostering a Sense of Belonging
Roosevelt said the initiative soon will target a similar preparation course for English and involve local community colleges in the partnership.
“We bring together CSUN’s best faculty to collaborate on best practices in teaching and professional development for the high school teachers, and to create a cross-level dialog between college instructors and high school instructors — to learn from each other,” he said.
Another target for the professors and other educators involved is the range of social and emotional issues students face while taking remedial college courses, such as self-doubt and the uncertainty of belonging.
“Every student who comes to the CSU and certainly to CSUN is capable of getting through their developmental math requirements,” Stevenson said. “The [test scores] don’t indicate if they belong to the university. The students belong here — and their grades just give them information for their next step. We’ve been working very hard on making that explicit [to them].”
The partnership with Project GRAD developed independently from the CSU 2025 Graduation Initiative, but it will be a major step toward higher graduation rates, according to Michael Spagna, dean of the Eisner College.
“CSUN has had a long-term commitment to building partnerships with local schools in the community,” Spagna said. “It is through these partnerships that the university promotes student success, emphasizing college preparedness and career readiness before individuals ever make the decision to come to our campus to pursue their dreams.”