Do College Placement Tests Wield Too Much Influence?

For some students, college becomes longer and more expensive because they must complete one or more semesters of remedial courses that do not count toward a degree, writes Bruce Vandal at Good Education.

These students cannot take regular college classes unless they first pass placement tests. According to the Community College Research Center, less than half of these students finish remedial courses and less than one-fourth of remedial students at community colleges go on to earn a certificate or degree within eight years.

However, with stakes as high as this, these assessments are not adequately administered or reliable. Two of the most common tests—the Accuplacer and COMPASS—can tell you the likelihood that a student placed in a college-level course will succeed. But, Vandal points out, because many systems set their own cut-off scores without conducting appropriate validity testing, the tests are not a statistically reliable tool for placing students.

Recent research from the CCRC, MDRC and WestEd also reveals some troubling practices on how institutions both administer the exams and use the results. On many campuses, students are unaware that they need to take a placement test. And as a result, when the student is asked to take the tests, we’re not seeing a clear and true representation of their learning ability.

Complete College America recently released a report that underscores the devastating consequences of a broken remediation system on college completion rates.

Evidence is building that assessments stand in the way of student success.

“A study conducted by CCRD in Virginia community colleges found that many students who placed into remedial courses, but who chose to enroll directly into college-level courses, were just as successful as those who took a semester of remediation.”

Models like the Accelerated Learning Project at the Community College of Baltimore County have shown that students who are typically placed in up to two levels of remediation can be successful at college-level courses if provided additional academic support.

What Vandal considers most impressive about these models is that they eliminate the phenomenon of students never enrolling in college-level courses, which significantly improves college-retention rates.

“States should follow Colorado’s lead—they’re planning a new system that will eliminate the use of cut scores on assessments as a sorting tool. Instead, the state’s community colleges are considering the use of diagnostic assessments that provide students and faculty better information on academic deficiencies and other non-cognitive factors like motivation.”

Colorado’s new system creates more precise information that will more effectively gauge whether students can be successful in college-level courses.

According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2018, 63 percent of jobs in America will require some form of postsecondary education or training.

Reforming the system will drastically improve the college success of thousands of students who want nothing more than to earn a credential and find a well-paying job, writes Vandal.