The Problem with Community College Placement Tests

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We examine a recent report that questions the fairness and effectiveness of college placement exams in determining whether students need remedial education before taking college courses.
Placement tests have traditionally been used by community colleges nationwide to determine whether recent high school graduates are prepared for the rigors of college coursework. The results of these examinations has landed many incoming college freshman into remedial or “developmental” classes designed to bring their academic skills up to par before embarking on more challenging college-level classes. However, recent evidence suggests that those remedial classes may be having a much larger – and negative – influence on college completion rates overall. Additional research has shown that these placement examinations may not even be the most accurate assessment of college readiness for the majority of students today.

College Placement Exams Study: Other Measurements More Accurate?
 
A new study from Achieving the Dream, a non-profit organization, was created to improve community college outcomes for low-income students. The study, titled, “Where to Begin? The Evolving Role of Placement Exams for Students Starting College,” found that tests commonly used by colleges to determine incoming student placement may be inaccurate and create hurdles to student success in college. The study found that other factors, including high school grades, may be better measures of success.
 
The study looked at students from the Long Beach Unified school district that attended Long Beach City College after high school. The study found that ninety percent of the students had to take five semester or more of remedial classes before they could embark on their college coursework. The study also found that if the college had relied on grade point averages, rather than placement exam scores, to allow freshmen to move right into college curriculum, the number of freshmen in college classes would have risen by as much as 500 percent.
 
“With educational 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,” Pamela Burdman, author of the study, was reported as saying at EdSource. Burdman added that the results of this study were so “stunning,” additional studies will soon be launched on 22 community colleges within the state of California.
 
Placement Exams and Completion Rates
 
For many years, the issue of placement examinations was not addressed because educators did not link these examinations to overall college completion rates. However, with increased focus on completion, schools are now forced to take a look at whether remedial education has an impact on the number of students that actually go on to complete their degree programs. As that link began to be studied, it became apparent that there was a direct association between students that had to take multiple remedial courses and those that never finished their college degree.
 
According to California Watch, only 25 percent of students that are required to take remedial reading courses in community college ever moved to a transfer-level English course. By the same token, only 10 percent of students taking a remedial math class ever moved to a college-level course. For schools that already feature a dismal completion rate of around 30 percent, the impact of remedial coursework could profoundly affect those numbers.
 
The study reported in the California Watch found many potential problems with college placement examinations, including exam inconsistency from school to school and lack of preparation and awareness of exams by students. Many students didn’t realize they had to take the tests and did not prepare for them ahead of time. Even after completing exams, a number of students didn’t realize how much impact those scores would have on their overall community college experience.
 
Five Challenges to Placement Exams
 
The study by Achieve the Dream categorized five elements that result in the problems with the placement exams as they are today:

  • High Stakes – These placement examinations are currently seen as low-stakes exams, so students are unaware of the repercussions if they don’t perform well on the tests.
  • Effectiveness of Developmental Education – The study also suggests the developmental, or remedial, education in its current state may be an ineffective tool in improving college success.
  • Positive Indications – Early studies seem to suggest that allowing students to accelerate through remedial education – or skip it entirely – could improve student outcomes.
  • Poor Indicators – Studies also suggest that placement examinations are poor indicators of academic success, and that other measuring tools may be more effective.
  • Incomplete Picture – Placement examinations may not provide a complete picture of potential student success, since they don’t accurately measure intangibles like persistence, motivation and critical thinking skills.
Hope for the Future
 
Fortunately, in the midst of much bleak news on placement exams, there is a bright spot in the recent study. Researchers also looked at ways to change the system to make it more accurate and conducive to increased completion rates. Some states are also becoming innovative in the way they approach college readiness. For example, Education Week reports that North Carolina is now working with College Board to design a new type of interactive exam that will better reflect the curriculum taught in the state.
 
New Jersey has plans to factor high school grades into examination scores. A community college is Texas is also using a similar system for students that fall into the “grey” zone of college readiness. Other schools are trying new ideas like providing online study guides for placement exams and offering remedial coursework in tandem with college classes for students that do require additional help.
 
College readiness is an important factor in college success, but measuring readiness is an imperfect process. Perhaps research like this will help educators find the most effective ways for measuring readiness to provide students with the best chance of success in the future.

Additional Resources [+]
10 Ways to Make the Most of the Community College Experience
10 Ways to Make the Most of the Community College Experience
Fewer Classes Waiting for California Community College Students
Fewer Classes Waiting for California Community College Students
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