CBC focused on students' success in math

By Curt Freed, Special to the Herald

"Open access" at Columbia Basin College means that we work with students from all levels of academic preparation. As a community college, we believe in work ethic and second chances.

As is typical for open access institutions, a huge majority of students, some 80 percent, need to take one or more math classes that are below college level when they first enter CBC.

Many of these students would not be admitted to a university because of poor attainment levels prior to CBC or because their skills have deteriorated in the years after high school graduation.

As they progress through CBC, though, and through one of our university partners, they wind up graduating in slightly higher numbers than the students who entered the university as freshmen.

At CBC, we fulfill our mission in six areas that include access, academic transfer, work force education, basic skills, cultural enrichment and physical and emotional well-being.

We conduct an annual evaluation on each of these six mission areas. These analyses are data-driven and aimed at continuous improvement because, as management guru Edward Deming wrote, "In God we trust; all others bring data." Using these rigorous measures for each mission area, we then work to "close the loop" on our findings with improvement actions.

Most recently, CBC assessed the academic transfer area of the mission. The assessment included indicators of student completion of pre-college (developmental education) and college level courses, transfer rates to baccalaureate institutions, and student performance after transfer. Most of the indicators had very positive outcomes, including the indicators about student performance after transfer.

As mentioned above, CBC students generally outperform other students when they transfer to four-year universities, including the native students from those institutions.

To determine how well our students are transitioning from pre-college to college-level math, and to analyze student success in college-level math courses, we benchmarked ourselves against the nation's top performers in these categories. According to these measures, CBC students are less successful than we desire. As a result, we immediately implemented improvement plans.

First, we are using supplemental instruction, a instructional support structure that uses something akin to the university's teaching assistants, in intermediate algebra, statistics and pre-calculus courses. Past results show that supplemental instruction produces a higher rate of student success as a first remedial approach to improving student success.

Second, CBC's math faculty have identified a common element among colleges with the highest success rates in the areas where we wish to create greater success. Quite simply, these colleges have additional math prerequisites.

At CBC, intermediate algebra, a noncollege-level course, is the primary prerequisite to statistics, pre-calculus and other key math courses in our offerings. Other colleges include an additional college-level algebra course as a prerequisite to these same courses.

Ultimately, students at comparison institutions probably are better prepared for a successful first attempt of the pertinent classes because of additional prerequisites completed. Our math department just recently adopted changes to prerequisites to raise student success in pre-calculus and calculus courses. Future assessments will determine the success of this change.

One thing is certain: Our math faculty is serious about understanding and improving student success.

CBC recently completed an accreditation cycle as one of four institutions piloting newly developed accreditation standards with the Northwest Commission on Colleges and Universities.

The commission coordinates the rigorous evaluation that allows CBC -- as well as Washington State University, the University of Washington, and every other college and university in our seven-state region -- to transfer credit, offer federal financial aid and so forth.

This new process demands a meticulous evaluation of mission fulfillment that is directly tied to continuous improvement actions.

The bottom line in all of this is that college is a place where all of us need to continue learning. CBC is committed to learning and changing to bring math transition and completion into alignment with the other very positive indicators of our students' success.

As Massachusetts Institute of Technology management professor Peter Senge noted, "Through learning we re-create ourselves. Through learning we become able to do something we were never able to do."

* Curt Freed is vice president for instruction at Columbia Basin College.