Report questions efficacy and fairness of college placement tests

August 2, 2012
De Anza College student Martin Finger tutors film student Richie Joseph at the Math, Science and Technology Resource Center. Photo by Neil Hanshaw

De Anza College student Martin Finger tutors film student Richie Joseph at the Math, Science and Technology Resource Center. Photo by Neil Hanshaw

The tests used by many community colleges and universities across the nation to determine whether incoming freshmen are ready for college-level courses are often inaccurate and pose roadblocks to student success in college, according to new research summarized in a report released Wednesday.

“With education reformers keenly focused on remedial education, new research using longitudinal data systems questions the efficacy and fairness of the very tests on which the system of remedial education relies,” says author Pamela Burdman in Where to Begin? The evolving role of placement exams for students starting college. The report was supported by Achieving the Dream, a national nonprofit dedicated to helping community college students, its affiliates, and Jobs for the Future, which develops new pathways to college and careers for low-income youth.

The research shows that high school grades are a better predictor of student success in college than placement test scores, Burdman said. She pointed to a study of students who graduated from Long Beach Unified school district and then attended Long Beach City College. Ninety percent of the students were placed in remedial education and had to take, on average, more than five semesters of remedial coursework. However, the study found that students’ high school grade point averages and their discipline records were much better predictors of college success than the placement tests. If the college had relied on those predictors, the the number of freshmen allowed to take college-level English courses would have risen by 500 percent.

These Long Beach findings were so stunning that a larger study that involves 22 California community colleges will soon begin, Burdman said.

Unlike many states, California law requires that colleges rely on multiple measures – not just test scores – to determine whether students are ready for college-level courses. However, Burdman reported, many colleges only use these other measures if students contest their placement.

College placement tests have avoided scrutiny in the past because, according to the report, “with little research on the topic, it has been easy to view college placement as a low-stakes issue. Whether a student has to take an extra course or even a few never seemed as important an issue as, say, which colleges he or she could attend.”

But those tests can have a major impact on a student’s college career.

A June 2010 study by EdSource found that students often got stuck in the remedial course sequence. That report found that roughly two-thirds of the California community college students studied who enrolled in remedial writing and mathematics sequences and three-quarters of those enrolled in a reading sequence did not complete a credential or degree nor did they transfer. In addition, very few students at the lowest levels of remedial coursework ever completed all the basic skills classes they were supposed to take.

However, students don’t appear to be aware of the high-stakes nature of these tests. In her report, Burdman pointed to a study by WestEd, an education research group based in San Francisco, that found students did not prepare for college placement tests and had no idea that doing poorly could mean they would have to spend another semester or more in college.

Santa Monica community college is attempting to change that perception. The college offers an online orientation to its placement test and also explains to students why it is important that they perform well on it.

Another issue raised in the report is whether tests could be developed that were “diagnostic.” Educators could use a diagnostic test to determine in what areas a student needs help and then provide focused support in those areas rather than requiring the student to take a semester-long remedial course.

California’s Community Colleges Student Success Task Force recommended in a January 2012 report that the colleges develop common assessments for reading, writing, math, and English as a Second Language that can provide diagnostic information. In addition, the colleges’ Board of Governors sponsored a law in October 2011 that requires the colleges’ Office of the Chancellor to work with the California Department of Education to develop common placement assessments for all the colleges. However, no funding was provided, and some question whether developing such an assessment in the near future is even a good idea.

A June 2012 report by Learning Works and EdSource concluded that “a fundamental question now facing California is whether statewide diagnostic assessments can be an effective lever for improving student success,” especially because the state’s community colleges differ in how they organize their developmental courses. The report went on to say that the state might be putting the cart before the horse. Should the diagnostic test, the report asked, be created before the state’s developmental curricula is reformed?

To further complicate matters, California, along with a number of other states, is creating new statewide K–12 assessments based on the Common Core curricula in English and math recently adopted by almost every state in the nation. In some ways, a common assessment could make it easier for high schools and community colleges to reach agreement about how to measure college readiness.

“In many states, students who are proficient on the Common Core will be able to waive placement,” Burdman said. But in California, she said, there are still a lot of questions. For example, she asks, will high schools and colleges agree on the same cut-off score for proficiency on the test in a state where currently the community colleges have different ideas of what proficiency means?

“A lot of things have to be worked out,” she said. “It’s certainly a daunting task.”

But there is some hope that agreement can be reached. For many years, high school juniors have been able to take a longer version of the STAR test in English and math to determine their readiness for California State University. If students test proficient on the enhanced test, then CSU does not require placement tests. Currently, many community colleges also will waive placement exams for students who test proficient on CSU’s Early Assessment Program (EAP). But one drawback is that the only students allowed to take the math portion of the test are those who are taking Algebra II or a higher-level math course.

As the state wrestles with how to reform its placement tests and developmental curricula, its efforts will likely be noticed, Burdman said. “California has enough going on that it will be one of the states people will be paying attention to when they are grappling with these questions.”


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