SMC students struggle with basic skills courses

The recently released draft of Santa Monica College’s 2011 Institutional Effectiveness (IE) Data report, reveals that many SMC students are still struggling to complete basic skills classes necessary for transfer to a four-year institution. The percentage of students receiving a grade of ‘C’ or higher in non-transferrable, lower-division English, ESL, and Math courses has increased about a percent per year for the past three years, but the overall success rate is still only 57 percent.

The IE report states that 70 percent of first-time freshmen test into basic-skills math and 75 percent into basic-skills English.

“Students are coming in underprepared. They’re not taking four years of math in high school,” said SMC Counseling Director Daniel Nannini in a phone interview with The Corsair. “They’re doing the minimum they need to do to graduate high school, and then they show up here and they have to start back at square one because a lot of them haven’t had math for two years. It’s very predictable.”

Nannini said that a cause of the unpreparedness may be the wide range of backgrounds SMC students have.

He also pointed out that incoming students do not need an high school diploma in order to attend SMC, they only need to be “18 and breathing.”

“We’re an open-enrollment institution, so we take everybody. So, when you take everybody, you’re going to have underprepared people,” said Nannini. “If I wanted the students to be more effective, I’d turn around and hold them for four years of math and four years of English to graduate high school.”

Toni Randall, chair of the ESL department at SMC, believes that catering to people at varied levels of preparedness is simply part of what a community college does.

“Traditionally, community colleges have always tended to have a larger ‘transient’ population than other institutions of higher learning, and students come with a range of academic preparation, experience, expectations, and goals,” says Randall. “Serving the community means trying to meet the needs and expectations of a hugely diverse population, one that is always changing and dependent on the political, economic, and social environment.”

The number of students who completed a higher-level course within three years of their initial course is 72.9 percent in 2011, which is a 5.7-percent increase from the 2006-2007 IE data.

One particularly low statistic from the report was the “transition to transfer rate,” which shows the number of students who enrolled in the math, English, or ESL courses required for a transfer within three years of completing their basic skills courses.

This rate has remained at an average of 31.6 percent for the past three years.

However, this does not take into account the students who may have external factors inhibiting their education, or those who may not even be looking to transfer.

Nannini believes that statistics like these are of questionable use.

“If I took a hundred students and started to watch them from their freshman year, I could tell them what it takes to transfer, I could tell them what classes,” he said. “If, at the end of three or four years, whatever these statistics are saying, half of them get there, then what you really want to do is study ‘well the half that didn’t, why?’ Did they, you know, have children? Do they work? Did they go to a different college? Who knows?”

Approximately half of the students, who claim they want to transfer to a four-year institution, transfer within six years of enrolling at SMC, according to the IE data report.

“You can raise your hand in a class when I ask if you want to transfer, but if you don’t go to your math classes, if you don’t pass your courses, then you’re actions are giving a very different message than your desires,” Nannini said, of students who do not transferring in time.

Randall suggests that maybe people are focusing too hard on the school’s transfer reputation.

“Whether or not you think that statistic is low depends on whether or not you think transfer readiness is the raison d’être of our institution,” said Randall.“Personally, I don't think it should be. As I said before, we have a hugely diverse population with a variety of personal goals and expectations; transfer is just one of them.”

Nannini also refers back to the fact that these statistics may not account for the broad scope of circumstances represented in a community college population.

“I think one thing that we miss in any kind of data collection is looking at the long term ability of someone to get through their basic skills,” Nannini said. “It might take them three years to get through their basic skills courses. So if you add that to what they need to transfer, it might take them four years to get out of here.”