Community College Placement Tests Unfairly Channel Students Into Remediation

This high school graduation season, some 400,000 young Californians will walk across stages and receive their diplomas in ceremonies full of optimism. By the fall, that optimism may be tempered when tens of thousands of them learn that they must repeat math coursework that they successfully completed in high school.

Education policymakers intent on changing that troubling situation have focused their efforts on improving students’ K-12 preparation. But, according to a new report by LearningWorks and Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), reformers would also be well-advised to focus on the inadequacies of the placement exams that determine whether college students must take remedial courses.

Remedial education is a barrier to earning a degree, particularly in mathematics. In California, 85 percent of community college students must take remedial math courses, many of them recent high school graduates. But recent research described in the report has revealed that the placement exams dictating community college remedial enrollments may be sending too many students to remedial math courses.

For example, although they’ve completed the final course in the college preparatory math sequence, high school Algebra 2, an estimated 50,000 students enrolling in the California Community Colleges are required to take one or more remedial math courses. Because these sequences can deter students from continuing in college, few of these students ultimately complete a college-level math course required for earning a degree, even if they pass the remedial courses they must take.

“Community colleges in California and nationally have begun to scrutinize their approach to placement,” noted Linda Collins, executive director of LearningWorks. “Re-shaping community college placement policies may be as important or even more important than re-designing the courses into which those policies place students.”

DEGREES OF FREEDOM: Probing Math Placement Policies at California Colleges and Universities, the last in a series of three reports by higher education policy analyst Pamela Burdman exploring college math requirements in California and nationally, comes at a time when math testing in California is in flux.

The California community college system has followed about a dozen state systems in developing a new test intended to better place students. Beginning in 2016, California’s new exam will replace a variety of assessments now in use by colleges.

Limitations of Placement Exams

The effectiveness of most college placement tests is limited in at least three areas, according to the report:

  • Test content doesn’t always align with high school curriculum, and remedial requirements prioritizing algebra instruction are often out of step with students’ academic pursuits, which may require a background in statistics, data analysis, or quantitative reasoning;
  • Test results often are used as the sole or primary factor in placing students, despite strong evidence that students’ high school records more effectively predict success in college courses; and
  • Lack of awareness about placement exams and their importance as well as poor K-16 coordination and communication leave many students ill-prepared to take the exams.

As a result, colleges, including a handful in California, have begun using students’ high school records in addition to — or instead of ­– test scores to determine what math courses are most appropriate. To assist California colleges in improving the effectiveness of their placement policies, a statewide research effort is developing a new placement algorithm for colleges in the state, but its use will be voluntary.

Said Eloy Oakley, president-superintendent of Long Beach City College, “Our initiative to use high school records to place students convinced us that far more students can succeed in college-level math than we previously realized. For the sake of students, I encourage other colleges to seriously consider broadening their placement criteria to emphasize students’ high school backgrounds.”

Re-thinking Math Readiness

The DEGREES OF FREEDOM series concludes with recommendations to make the placement system more effective. These include incorporating high school grades into postsecondary placement decisions, considering students’ programs of study in determining their remedial needs, and sharing practices across colleges to reduce confusion and heighten transparency about remedial placement in California.

California’s higher education systems need to adopt a realistic definition of college readiness in math along with more effective ways of measuring it,” noted David Plank, executive director of PACE. “Such changes are an important complement to efforts by the K-12 system to better prepare students.”


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