Placement exams are ineffective

Tens of thousands of California community college students may be wrongly assigned to remedial English and math courses based on placement exams that are flawed. At a time of increasing state and national scrutiny on completion rates, two national studies from the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College found that the most common placement exams are poor predictors of college success.

In Predicting Success in College: The Importance of Placement Tests and High School Transcripts, researchers found “high ‘severe’ error rates using the placement test cutoffs.” How bad? Three out of ten students were wrongly assigned in English. The numbers were lower in math, “but still not nontrivial,” wrote the authors.

A far better indicator of how students will do in college is how they performed in high school. When researchers compared success rates using only high school GPA or only placement exams,they found the “severe error rate” was cut in half for the GPA group.

Comparing success rates by high school grades and scores on the two main placement exams. (Source:  CCRC 2012) Click to enlarge.
Comparing success rates by high school grades and scores on the two main placement exams. (Source: CCRC 2012) Click to enlarge.

The results were slightly less conclusive in math in the second study, titled Do High-Stakes Placement Exams Predict College Success? Researcher Judith Scott-Clayton found that math placement exams were more accurate than English placement tests. But Scott-Clayton had this caveat: “Placement test scores are better at predicting who is likely to do well in the college-level course than predicting who is likely to fail.”

None of this surprises Robert Gabriner, director emeritus of the Center for Student Success at the Research & Planning Group for California Community Colleges. He said researchers have been skeptical about the validity of placement tests for years.

“Some of my colleagues said you could put a chart on the wall and have monkeys throw darts at it and it would be just as reliable,” Gabriner recalled.

“This is a real positive step,” he said. “Where this leads is that overnight we have increased the number of students who do not go into basic skills in English and math because they shouldn’t have been there in the first place.”

That could mean the difference between earning a degree or credential or giving up. Numerous studies have shown that students stuck for several semesters in remedial – also known as basic skills – courses are significantly more likely to drop out of community college. A student required to take three semesters of basic skills math has just a 16 percent chance of finishing those courses according to another CCRC study; for English it’s 22 percent.

In California, between 70 and 90 percent of first-time community college students place into remedial math, English, or both. They have to pay for the courses, but the credits earned don’t count toward an Associate degree or units needed to transfer to a four-year college.

“Our average, and we’re not unusual, there are students who typically take seven to eight semesters at City College before they’re able to get out; that’s four years,” explained San Francisco City College chancellor Don Griffin. “The question really is, if you were allowed to go to a college-level class based on high school performance would you do as well as students who had been placed there?”

Chancellor Griffin believes those students would do as well, and the studies back him up. CCRC director Thomas Bailey found that students who ignored the results of the placement exams and went directly into college-level classes had lower success rates than the students who placed into those courses; but, weighed against students who accepted the test results and enrolled in basic skills, they did significantly better in college-level courses, passing at a rate of 72 percent compared to 27 percent.

City College ran its own experiment on placement exams and the results reinforced Griffin’s lack of confidence in the tests. They retested students two weeks after they took the placement exam, and 40 percent of them scored well enough to move into a higher-level course.

Next up, he’s asked the academic senate to approve a pilot program to take 500 new students and not test them all, and instead place them based on their high school grades. Griffin hopes to start the program next fall, and he predicts that the results will be good.

“If you want to look at how competent a person is, you place them in the best class, give them competent instruction, and see how well they perform,” said Griffin. “And I think the expectation is that they will perform well.”

Author: Kathryn Baron

Kathryn Baron, co-writer of TOP-Ed (Thoughts On Public Education in California), has been covering education in California for about 15 years; most of that time at KQED Public Radio where her reports aired on The California Report as well as various National Public Radio programs. She also wrote for magazines and newspapers before going virtual as producer and editor at The George Lucas Educational Foundation. Kathy grew up in New York in a family of teachers. She moved to California for graduate school and after spending one sunny New Year’s Day riding her bicycle in the foothills, decided to stay. She and her husband live in Belmont. They have two children, one in college and one in high school.

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