CBC fares poorly in teaching remedial math

PASCO -- Math is difficult -- or at least hard to teach to students who aren't ready for college.

That's according to a first-ever study prepared by Columbia Basin College that compared its students' success rates with those from other two-year colleges.

In some areas CBC did very well -- most importantly in how many of its students get good grades after they transfer to four-year universities.

But the results presented Monday showed CBC doesn't do as well as other colleges when it comes to teaching remedial math.

The study was one of six self-evaluations the college performs annually -- one for each focus of the college. The results presented to the board of trustees covered how well CBC prepares students who go on to pursue bachelor's degrees.

It was the first time CBC has had access to data from national and state agencies that was broken down to students' success in individual courses, as opposed to overall grade averages or graduation rates.

Joe Montgomery, dean for institutional effectiveness, joined CBC to a database called the National Community College Benchmark Project for the first time last fall. The database includes course completion rates from more than 300 two-year colleges.

Montgomery culled 48 sets of numbers out of the database -- all from colleges that are comparable in size and are located in communities similar to the Tri-Cities, he told the board Monday.

Out of those 48, CBC placed 43rd in an important category -- how many of its students who needed a remedial, high-school level math class when they arrived went on to pass the initial college-level math course.

Half of the CBC students didn't pass the higher course. That means half of all students who arrived ill-prepared for college math still weren't prepared after taking lower-level CBC math classes.

The national database doesn't give out the colleges' names, but the top finisher in this category had more than 80 percent of its students passing college-level math after taking the catch-up classes.

However, the national database also doesn't include any information on how many students need such remedial classes. Eighty percent of students coming in to CBC do, Montgomery said.

He also compared CBC's numbers with those of other two-year colleges in Washington, courtesy of the State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

For three important courses -- pre-calculus, calculus and statistics -- CBC ranked at or near the very bottom of that pack.

The person in charge of math at CBC had only seen the results of the study hours before the board meeting.

"At the moment we're compiling a list of questions," said Gary Olson, dean for math and science. "At the spring meeting of math instructors from two-year colleges, we'll ask the schools that seem to be doing a little better what they're doing differently. We'll be making changes, we just don't know where yet."

After the meeting, CBC's vice president for instruction told the Herald about the first possible change.

"We may have to look at how our placement tests place students," said Curt Freed.

Unlike four-year universities, which require certain credits in math from students before they apply, community colleges take everyone, Freed said.

The students take tests in key areas such as reading, writing and math to determine at which course level they start their college career. The tests are not standardized statewide, but are set up by each college, said CBC President Rich Cummins.

"We might be placing students incorrectly," he said.

If students are placed too high, they might be able to muddle through the remedial classes only to get stuck in the more rigorous college courses because they still haven't mastered basic algebra, for example, Freed said.

The ratio of students to instructors appeared to be a problem, too. Compared to the 48 similar colleges around the country, only ten had more students served by each instructor.

CBC did score above average in several important categories.

Thirty-six percent of full-time CBC students complete a degree or transfer to a university within three years, which puts CBC at number 21 out of 48 in the national ranking. It ranked eight in college course completion in all subjects taken together.

CBC students who transfer to Washington State University do very well.

Throughout the WSU system, 72 percent of all students who transferred in from CBC graduated, Montgomery's study shows. The overall graduation rate at WSU is 69 percent, according to university records.

The grade-point average of former CBC students at WSU is 3.32 out of a possible 4.

This placed CBC in the top five feeder colleges for WSU statewide, and a few of the higher-ranked feeders sent comparatively few students, which means those colleges' numbers aren't as statistically meaningful as CBC's.

The numbers for CBC students at WSU's Tri-Cities campus are virtually identical to the statewide data.

Also discussed during Monday's board meeting:

-- Tuition is expected to rise at least 7 percent in the fall and three new fees will be charged to students or staff. Students will pay a new security fee of $15 per quarter and a $5 instruction fee per credit starting in the fall. Staff's parking fee will increase from $15 to $30.

-- CBC has made several personnel moves to meet the budget cuts decided in a special session of the legislature in December. No faculty was laid off, but two administrative workers were. Also, three already vacant positions were slashed and five workers were moved from the state's payroll to positions covered by grants.

* Jacques Von Lunen: 509-582-1402; jvonlunen@tricityherald.com