A Place For Placement Exams


By Guest Blogger Pamela Burdman

Research and innovation in college developmental (aka remedial) education is shaking up notions about how to determine whether students are “college ready.”

A new report, Where to Begin?, out today from Jobs for the Future (by yours truly) outlines an emerging narrative about how public colleges and universities can best serve students who are under-prepared for college.  The new narrative is leading to soul-searching about the proper role of placement exams.  While much of the discussion is occurring at community colleges, the issue has bearing for four-year universities as well.

Recent research shows how lengthy remedial sequences can constitute a barrier to graduation, underscoring the fact that placement tests are high-stakes exams (even though they are not always treated as such). This finding has captured the attention of college leaders, especially given that research has yet to show clearly whether remedial education as traditionally practiced improves student outcomes.  In fact, preliminary studies reveal that attempts to accelerate some students (those who score slightly below the cut-off for college-level courses) out of developmental education and into credit-bearing courses may be working.

The knowledge that students often don’t realize the importance of the tests until after they’ve taken them is also causing colleges to try new approaches.  Santa Monica College developed an online placement orientation to help students get ready for the tests, claiming that students who prepare for the exams are 18 to 36 percent more likely to avoid developmental courses.  Other colleges are offering refresher courses for students who don’t pass the placement exams. Cumberland County College in New Jersey found that more than 85 percent of students who took a six-hour refresher for $35 subsequently passed college-level English.

But perhaps the biggest stir has been caused by new research showing that placement exams are only weakly predictive of students’ success in math and English, and that high school grades do a better job (even though this has long been true for college admissions as research at the University of California has repeatedly shown).  After conducting their own research on the question, community college systems such as North Carolina’s and institutions such as Long Beach City College are responding to the news by considering the advantages of using grades and other measures in addition to test scores.

Besides multiple measures, another way that colleges are effectively downgrading the role of placement exams is through policies that require students to master only the math content needed for their intended major:  In Virginia, for example, humanities majors only need to complete or place out of five of the community college system’s nine math modules, leaving the science-oriented math requirements such as advanced algebra for students pursuing degrees in STEM.  According to some studies, less than a quarter of all majors require calculus-oriented math.

While they may be de-emphasizing placement tests, most college systems are nowhere close to abandoning them.  Even the Common Core assessments in development are not expected to replace the placement tests in most states,  though some states have signaled that the tests will be used to waive placement testing for students who score proficient.

But several systems are looking at ways to improve the tests.  At least four state community college systems (Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, and Texas) are saying goodbye to off-the-shelf tests in favor of new ones customized to their curriculum.  The same four states are also adding diagnostic capabilities to their test, either to help place students into instructional modules (Virginia, North Carolina) or to better target instruction after students are placed into developmental courses (Florida, Texas).

In a few years, researchers will be able to assess whether the new and improved tests (coupled with outreach to ensure students know to take the tests seriously) help colleges do a better job helping students earn a degree.


Pamela Burdman is a Chicago-based consultant working with foundations and nonprofits on efforts to improve college readiness and success.  She previously worked as a program officer for the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.  The report can be accessed at (http://www.jff.org).





Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *