Columbia Study Raises Serious Issues About Community College Placement Tests

– A new working paper by the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University, explores the role of assessments in effectively placing students in America’s community colleges. The paper, titled “Assessing Developmental Assessment in Community Colleges,” reviews findings from more than 50 research reports, surveys and other sources.

More than 90 percent of community colleges use assessments, or placement tests, to sort students into courses of varying difficulty. Doing so is crucial because two-year public colleges are open-access institutions that accept nearly all students who apply, regardless of their level of academic preparation. Many who enroll are low-income students, and they often arrive poorly prepared for college-level coursework.  Indeed more than half are assigned to one or more not-for-college-credit “developmental,” or remedial, courses, which are aimed at teaching the basic academic skills that are needed to thrive in regular college credit courses.

The costs of remediation are not trivial. Each year more than $1 billion is spent on such programs. Yet the benefits remain unclear. The evidence is mixed at best regarding whether remediation positively affects student outcomes, particularly for students who may be almost college-ready. This raises a number of important questions, both about remediation itself as well as the means by which students are assigned to these programs.

“In recent years there has been a movement by many states to standardize assessment-based placement at their community colleges, with the belief that the practice is beneficial for all students,” said Dr. Katherine Hughes, assistant director for work and education reform research at CCRC and a co-author of the paper. “With so many resources dedicated to this practice, CCRC undertook this research to ‘assess assessments.’”

Some of the conclusions from the review include:

  • Assessments appear to be more successful in placing academically prepared students than in placing academically underprepared students.


  • Students who narrowly miss an assessment “cutoff” score and who complete remedial courses are no more likely to complete credit coursework than students with similar scores who continue straight to credit coursework without taking remedial classes first.


  • Multiple measures for placement, such as high school transcripts and written essays in addition to assessments, may improve placement accuracy, as might the use of more diagnostic and affective assessments.


“What we found is that assessment does not appear to be an effective means of placement for all students,” said Dr. Hughes. “States may want to do more research in this area before relying too much on one measure, an assessment score in this instance, for placing community college students.”

The CCRC working paper “Assessing Developmental Assessment in Community Colleges” was made possible through the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The paper is available at the CCRC website

One comment on “Columbia Study Raises Serious Issues About Community College Placement Tests”

  1. There’s a good deal of literature and research suggesting that simply relying on a cognitive assessment heightens the potential for misplacement. Affective assessments, like the LASSI, or anything measuring conation, can supplement cognitive assessments and eliminate many of the problems discussed here. Sadly, very few institutions do this.

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