Basic Skills Students: A Closer Look

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The Basic Skills Initiative (BSI) is a movement occurring throughout the state to help students be more successful. A part of the BSI is the establishment of baseline measures to help a college gauge its success over time. However, the development of these baseline measures for the Riverside Community College District (RCCD) prompted some questions not asked as part of the baseline measures. How are basic skills students identified? How many students recommended into basic skills actually enroll in basic skills? If a student is recommended for basic skills but does not enroll in basic skills, what do they take and perhaps more importantly, how do they do? These questions are investigated in this report and several recommendations are offered to help investigate this important issue in more depth.


 Many initiatives to assist basic skills students have taken place over the years at Riverside Community College District (RCCD). The most recent of these is the Basic Skills Initiative (BSI), “a multi-year effort to improve curriculum, instruction, student services, assessment, program practices and campus culture in the areas of ESL and basic skills across the state.” One part of the BSI project was a series of data-based questions that required a college or district to establish a baseline so that efforts could be measured to see what impact these efforts had over time.

This report grew from the development of the numbers to establish this baseline. In the process of answering the questions, more questions arose which revealed interesting and important information about these students. What came to light was the fact that there is important information in what is not asked specifically from the BSI that springs naturally from what is asked.
The intent of this report is not to provide policy recommendations, but rather to provide information to inform discussions that will influence future policy decisions.
The first question to ask is, “How many students are basic skills students?” Though this question appears to be straight forward, it could be answered in different ways. One way to answer the question is ask, “How many students currently enrolled are enrolled in at least one basic skills course?” Basic skills courses are defined in Title 5 as “those courses in reading, writing, computation, learning skills, study skills, and English as a Second Language which are designated by the community college district as non-degree credit courses.”  The BSI notes that these courses are “necessary for student to succeed in college-level work.”
In Fall 2006, there were 51 courses coded as basic skills at RCCD. Table 1 shows these courses.

 Table 1: Basic Skills courses offered in Fall 2006


In Fall 2006, there were 5,053 students (16.5%) enrolled in at least one course coded as basic skills[1] in the district. 
However, to answer the question as intended in the BSI handbook (the “Poppy Copy”), the more specific question should have been, “How many students are recommended into a basic skills course?” This question also requires that other questions be answered first.
To answer this question, placement data must be used as starting place. Placement data from July 2001 to December 2006 (please see Chart 2) show that the majority of people participate in the placement process between the months of April and August, presumably in preparation for the Fall semester. (There is a small surge before the Spring semester, in January and February, but it is not as dramatic as the months prior to September.) 
In the six months between March 1 and August 31, 2006, 10,012 people took part in the placement process (Test Takers). Of these Test Takers, 8,239 (82.3%) were recommended into at least one basic skills course district-wide. This is a huge difference when compared to the number of students who are enrolled in a basic skills course and illustrates the importance of how the question is asked.

Chart 2

There are still other questions to be asked before the original question is answered. For example, how many Test Takers enrolled in any course in Fall 2006? Matching the placement information with enrollment information showed that 6,901 Test Takers (68.9%) enrolled in any course, not just a basic skills course in Fall 2006. The number of Test Takers who were recommended into a basic skills course and who enrolled in any class in Fall 2006 was 5,597 (67.9%). The number of Test Takers who were recommended into a basic skills course and who enrolled in a basic skills course in Fall 2006 was 2,722 (33.0%).
It is important to note that almost a third of Test Takers (3,111 or 31.1%) did not enroll in Fall 2006.
Yet another way that this question could be answered is using the identifier of First Time Student (FTS)[2]. These people are students who were enrolled in the district and who identified themselves as first time students. There were 6,372 FTS in the district in Fall 2006 who accounted for 20.6% of the district enrollment (30,702).
The percentage of FTS who were recommended into a basic skills course was about the same compared to percentage of Test Takers recommended into basic skills. District-wide, 4,407 (69.2%) FTS were recommended into basic skills. Since FTS are students, all of them were enrolled in at least one course in Fall 2006. Of the 4,407(69.2%) FTS recommended for basic skills, just over half of them (2,272 or 51.6%) enrolled in a basic skills course in Fall 2006.
Because of the ability to link FTS with other data as well as the ability to identify students by campus, it was decided to use the FTS as other basic skills measures were developed.
So to answer the question, “How many of our students are basic skills students?”  More than two-thirds of first time students at RCCD (69.2%) were recommended for basic skills courses in Fall 2006.
The next question to ask is, “Into which courses do basic skills students enroll?” As mentioned above, just over half of the FTS who are recommended into basic skills enrolled in a basic skills course. The other half (2,135 out of 4,407 or 48.4%) enrolled in courses not coded as basis skills. 
Three out of four (1,632 or 76.4%) FTS recommended for basic skills who did not enroll in basic skills enrolled in a transfer-level course[3]. Of these students, 58.4% (953) attained a GPA of 2.0 (average grade of “C”) or better in their first semester, Fall 2006. One third of them (544 or 33.3%) attained a GPA of 3.0 (average grade of “B”) or better. See Chart 4 below.

Chart 4

As noted above, three out of five FTS recommended for basic skills who did not take basic skills but instead took transfer-level courses attained a GPA of 2.0 or higher in those transfer-level courses. Does the type of recommended remediation affect their GPA?
Before this question can be answered, the distribution of where students placed by subject area needs to be determined. The number of FTS in Fall 2006 was 6,372, as mentioned above. The number of FTS recommended into basic skills was 4,407. Of these, 2,544 (57.7%) were recommended into English; 1,447 (32.8%) were recommended into Math[4]; and 4,029 (91.4%) were recommended into Reading[5]. (The number of ESL placements is relatively small compared to these numbers; only 96 FTS were recommended into basic skills ESL in Fall 2006.) Please see Chart 8.

Chart 8

FTS who were recommended for basic skills but who instead enrolled in transfer level courses (FTS1) were matched to their placement level to determine if attaining a GPA of 2.0 or higher differs by into which basic skills subject area (English, Math, Reading) recommended for them.
In English, 627 FTS1 students were recommended into basic skills and almost half (306 or 48.8%) attained a GPA of 2.0 or higher. In Math, 375 FTS1 students were recommended into basic skills and almost half of them (181 or 48.3%) attained a GPA of 2.0 or higher. In Reading, 1,499 FTS1 students were recommended into basic skills and almost 60% (873 or 58.2%) attained a GPA of 2.0 or higher. Please see Chart 9.

Chart 9

The details provided in this report are presented to help guide the discussion as strategies are developed to improve the effectiveness of basic skills courses and interventions. Based on this information, I have four suggestions.
1.      Base the need for basic skills on students who actually enroll rather than on anyone who participates in the placement process. 
This seems obvious and intuitive in that it will allow colleges to tie course taking patterns and effects of interventions on student outcomes, such as grades and persistence.
2.      Investigate the high percentage of students who participate in the placement process but who do not enroll. 
As reported above, almost one third of these people did not enroll in the semester the immediately followed their placement. This can cause concern for several reasons:
a.       How valid is the placement recommendation over time? What if an intervention occurred, such as the student seeking tutoring, or the student brushing up on their own skills, or the student working in an environment that could increase their practice in one of these areas?
b.      How much does it cost to administer placement to someone who does not enroll? With an estimate of $5 per test, the 3,111 people who took the test but did enroll cost RCCD over $15,000 in one 6-month period.
c.       Perhaps the reason students did not enroll is because their recommended placement discouraged them from enrolling. If a student was recommended into a basic skills course, the amount of time it would take to reach a degree might be daunting.
3.      Investigate the possibilities of why students who are recommended for basic skills can achieve passing grades in transfer-level courses. 
This is perhaps the most difficult concept to grasp. For clarity’s sake, let me reiterate that “basic skills courses,” as used in this report, are the lowest level courses RCCD offers. These courses do not include those courses that are “degree applicable but not transferable,” such as English one level below college level. How do these students fare so well in courses that are transferable to the University of California or California State University? It could be that the faculty who teach these courses are superb and are able to help “basic skills” students attain success in these rigorous courses. If this is true, these teaching methodologies should be replicated throughout the state.
4.      Investigate the accuracy of placement recommendations.
This would be at the top of my list. For the purposes of the BSI, a basic skills student is one who is placed into a basic skills course. When this is added to findings in this report regarding the higher than intuitively expected number of basic skills students who are successful in transfer level courses, it suggests that the placement process may need to be investigated more closely. At RCCD, we are in the process of trying to sort out the myriad possibilities that would help us to understand these findings but the process is arduous. Hopefully, more discussion will take place and we, along with other colleges, can learn from each other.
With any research project, there are limitations to the study. One thing is that these results may only pertain to RCCD. I am currently soliciting volunteers from other colleges to broaden the scope of this study to see if this is true. Also, it could be that more test takers actually enroll either before or after the presumed semester for which they test. Finally, the information presented here was for one semester. Trends across years would give us more confidence that this phenomenon is actually occurring.

[1] CB08=”P” or “B”
[2] SB15=1.
[3] CB05=”A” or “B”, excluding Physical Education (PHP) courses
[4] The placement process does not distinguish between Math 50 and Math 51, though Math 51 is not a basic skills course.
[5] The counts and percentages for FTS is a duplicated count. Students can be placed into one or more basic skills area.