Christopher Villalta was not the best student to graduate from La Quinta High School in June, but the soft-spoken 18-year-old earned his diploma and passed the state exit exam required for all students.
He started classes at College of the Desert in Palm Desert this month in hopes of becoming a photographer or graphic artist and eventually transferring to the Art Institute of California’s Inland Empire campus in San Bernardino.
But before he can do that, Villalta, along with the vast majority of first-year students at COD, has to take a battery of basic skills courses — reading, writing and math — to prepare him for college-level work.
Did you know?
97 percent of Coachella Valley students entering College of the Desert in Palm Desert have to take a basic skills course in English or math before they can enter a college-level course in the two subjects. California is ranked 48th in the United States in students’ proficiency in basic skills, according to the Pacific Research Institute, a Sacramento-based think tank.As part of the statewide Basic Skills Initiative, all community colleges submitted detailed plans this year on improving their English and math programs. COD’s included more than 90 action items, including a more upbeat name for its program — it’s the Student Success Initiative, rather than Basic Skills — and beefing up the school’s tutoring services. Other initiatives:
Cal-Pass: COD and the valley’s three K-12 districts have signed up for Cal-Pass, a data-sharing system that will allow them to track student performance in math and English from high school through college and other vocational programs. The program, which began in San Diego, tracks data on more than 4,000 schools in 22 districts around the state. As part of the project, they also will be forming professional learning councils, groups of high school and college teachers who analyze the data and use it to better align curricula and programs.
Assessing the assessment tests: Like many community colleges, COD uses a standard math and English assessment test, called Accuplacer. Developed by the College Board, which also administers the SATs, Accuplacer is a computerized test in which the length and difficulty of the test is based on how well a student answers the questions. “If a student doesn’t perform well on the lower levels, they won’t get to the upper levels,” said Adrian Gonzales, dean of student support services. A student who took calculus in high school may be rusty in algebra or arithmetic, resulting in a low math score, Gonzales said.
Offering pre-assessment brush-ups or splitting the test into segments are some of the options being considered, he said. Learning communities: Learning communities are small groups of students who take a series of basic skills courses together, while getting extra tutoring and counseling in basic academic skills, such as how to study and take tests. Until now, the school’s ability to offer these special programs has been limited by the amount of outside funding it could get for them, said Mary Boyd, coordinator for learning communities at the school. Now, Boyd said, “We are basically probably one year away from totally institutionalizing (these programs), where the college does this as part of curriculum without outside funding.” The basic skills initiative has allowed for an increased number of communities on campus, jumping from one last year to five this fall, she said.
“Within the first six weeks of the new semester, I can see an awakening,” Boyd said. “You see the students kick it in; they get it that we’re there to help them and they need to be prepared.”
In the Coachella Valley, 97 percent of all students entering COD in 2007 needed at least one basic skills, or remedial, course in math or English. Their success in completing the classes is often critical to keeping them in school and moving toward their academic and career goals, experts say.
“Without the basic, rudimentary skills of math, English and reading, these students get discouraged and they drop out,” said COD President Jerry Patton. “Their success is based on their ability to feel comfortable in the classroom, to compete with other students.”
In fact, only 58 percent of COD students taking a basic skills class — math or English — in the 2006-07 academic year finished the course with a passing grade, according to figures the school compiles for the state.
A report from the Legislative Analyst Office found that statewide half of community college students enrolled in basic skills courses in any given term do not return the following fall term.
The schools are now tackling these statistics with a statewide Basic Skills Initiative backed with $33 million in funding. COD’s piece of the pie last year was $442,707, and the school has used the funds in part to fuel new efforts to work with the valley’s three K-12 districts to close the gap between high school and college skill levels.
COD is increasing its outreach efforts to high school students to help prepare them for college work and retooling some of its own courses. Patton also has launched a valley-wide education consortium aimed at sharing data on student performance and smoothing the transition between high school and college work.
“We’ve been meeting once a month,” said Marcie Rivera, director of secondary education for the Coachella Valley Unified School District. “What that has done for us is to (let us) have a very real connection with COD administration and faculty, and some very honest and difficult conversations.”
With the school year now under way, Patton is continuing to push.
“The more we collaborate, the more we can tailor the curricula to provide a seamless transition from high school to college,” he said.
Ask almost any educator about the basic skills gap between K-12 and college students, and the word that immediately comes up is “alignment.”
Simply put, the knowledge and skill levels in English and math that students leave high school with aren’t consistent, or aligned, with the knowledge and skills they need for post-secondary education. The gap in skills affects students whether they’re working toward a vocational certificate at a community college or a four-year degree.
“I do have a reading problem,” said Villalta, who is now taking a remedial reading course, along with an art class. “I read slower. I (have to) go over it twice.”
Jennifer Garcia, 23, of Palm Desert is in COD’s nursing program, but failed her final exam in beginning algebra last year by a few points. She’s retaking the course and working with a tutor, Enrike Nguyen, 19, another student.
“Math, it’s hard for me. I have difficulty retaining information,” said Garcia, who earned A’s and B’s as a student at Amistad High School in Indio.
Enrike “lets me see the problem. He guides me to the answer,” she said.
The most dramatic evidence of the gap can be seen in the difference between 11th-graders’ scores on the state-mandated California Standards Test and the optional Early Assessment Program, a test developed by California State University to gauge students’ college readiness.
At Palm Desert High School, for example, 58 percent of the 11th-graders taking the standards test last year scored proficient or better in English. While more than 93 percent of the students opted to take the early assessment test at the same time, only 27 percent were evaluated as college ready.
Part of the problem, experts say, is that high school and college-level courses in the same subject are focused on developing different skills.
“One of the things we first learned is it didn’t matter if students exited high school with 10th- or 11th-grade skills. Remediation was almost exactly the same at community colleges,” said Brad Phillips, executive director of Cal-Pass, a statewide initiative to track student performance data from K-12 through community college and university levels.
“In high school, literature was emphasized; at community colleges, writing and grammar were emphasized; at university rhetoric was emphasized,” Phillips said.
Kim Dozier, who teaches an introductory writing class at COD, said the gap for her students is between writing basic sentences and the more complex skills required in synthesizing their own arguments and ideas.
“When you ask them to combine sentences or put in more detail, they stumble,” said Dozier, a member of a basic skills task force at COD.
In high school, students “write a lot of responses to literature — what do you think of this story. I want to know what they think about their own ideas. I want them to learn to use other writers’ work to support their ideas,” Dozier said.
In the math department, instructors are faced with students who can use calculators but don’t know basic arithmetic, said Jim Parvizi, dean of math and science.
“We have a lot of people who don’t have any concept of fractions; (the idea of) two-thirds, it doesn’t make sense to them,” Parvizi said. “And that seems to be a major stumbling block to developing higher mathematical skills. A relatively large number don’t even know their multiplication tables.”
To get students up to speed on arithmetic, Parvizi has added two new eight-week classes to the curriculum, one on integers and one on fractions.
About 60 percent of math classes are now basic skills courses, he said.
“I think it’s important people understand we have great students,” Dozier said. “They may be lacking in skills, but they’re not lacking in intelligence. They’re not lacking in creativity. A lot of people make a better life for themselves because they can start here.”
K Kaufmann covers higher education for The Desert Sun. She can be reached at [email protected] or 778-4622.