Ditching placement tests yields promising results

Math and science department chair Carl Torres leads a math workshop at Guam Community College. (Photos: GCC)

Relying on high school transcripts rather than placement tests for determining which math and English courses incoming students can take has led to many more students enrolling in and passing gatekeeper courses at Guam Community College (GCC).

In the first three semesters of the Classroom Learning Yields Math & English Readiness (CLYMER) program in fall 2017, spring 2018 and fall 2018, 92 percent of the 263 of the qualified students who took English composition (English 110) earned a “C” or better. The success rate for the 166 CLYMER students who took Finite Mathematics (Math 110) was 90 percent.

The passage rates for both courses exceed the average passage rates during the six years before the experiment, but students’ performance in math seems like a breakthrough.

“It was so rare for students to place into college-level math prior to CLYMER that just after three semesters of our CLYMER program, we have already exceeded the total number of students placed into college-level math by 46 percent when compared to 2010 to 2016, with success rates even exceeding those students,” said Michael Chan, dean of technology and student services at GCC.

Better predictors

In both the entry-level math and English credit courses, most students earned an “A” without access to tutoring or support services other than what the college had historically offered to all students. Fewer than a total of 10 students earned a “D” or “F.” CLYMER students were allowed to choose any course section that met their needs, and instructors were not told they were CLYMER students.

For Chan, the initial results validate the use of high school transcripts rather than standardized tests for placing recent high school graduates who meet certain criteria.He proposed nixing placement tests for recent high school graduates with 3.2 GPAs and grades of “B” or better in Algebra II and English 12 after analyzing 10 years of GCC student data.

“We feel that a student’s educational foundation, sense of responsibility and work ethic is a much better predictor of success in college than a placement test,” Chan explained.

His idea for what became the CLYMER program grew out of his professional observations of Guam’s educators at work and his personal experience being wrongly placed in remedial math as an undergraduate.

“Putting all those experiences together and then to see the data of our placement results, particularly in math, one just cannot help but think that maybe, just maybe, something is not right,” said Chan, who last fall shared preliminary data about the CLYMER program at the STEM Thought Leaders Summit convened by the American Association of Community Colleges with support from the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program.

“The whole purpose of CLYMER is to offer our students the best starting point possible. . . . As with anything in life, especially in college, the starting point can often play a major factor when it comes to finishing,” Chan said.

A transformational move

From 2010 to 2016, about 73 percent of GCC’s incoming students placed into developmental English and about 96 percent placed into developmental math. In fall 2018, the third semester of the CLYMER program, the placement rate had dropped to 63 percent for English and 75 percent for math.

The college also has cut the number of developmental course sections it offers by 20 percent.

Quantifying the difference for students is difficult because the college does not have data on the number of students who would have qualified directly for credit courses based on their high school grades between 2010 and 2016. It also did not require students who qualified for CLYMER to take the placement exams.

Chan estimates the potential tuition savings for each student at $2,752, depending on which developmental course they may have been placed.

Speaking from experience

It’s the time that students save and the opportunity for them to begin college without the sting of a being placed unnecessarily in developmental courses that drives him. He knows that from his own experiences.

Michael Chan and Gary Hartz, who both work in GCC’s school of technology and student services, are the point people for the CLYMER program.

When Chan enrolled in a California community college in 1993, his placement test score put him in trigonometry rather than calculus, which would have allowed him to dive right into college as an electrical engineering major.

A college counselor insisted on following the standardized test score rather than considering his performance in high school math courses. Consequently, Chan had to take trigonometry and then pre-calculus before he could take calculus.

“It took me a year to get to the starting point of my declared major,” he said.

Stronger ties

In 2016, the idea of giving numerous incoming students the option to skip the placement exam was radical enough that Chan almost did not propose it. Patrick Clymer, GCC’s registrar at the time, encouraged him not to hesitate and promised to work with him to gather pre- and post-intervention data.

When Clymer died in summer 2016, the college named the program so that its acronym would spell out Clymer’s surname.

An unanticipated outcome of the CLYMER program is stronger bonds that have formed with its six feeder high schools, Chan said. He thinks the CLYMER students’ data “undeniably shows the effectiveness” of the work of elementary, middle and high school teachers in Guam.

Chan suggested that other colleges use data to determine alternative methods for identifying students’ eligibility for credit courses. He acknowledged that selecting the “sweet spot” can be challenging.

Referring to the CLYMER program’s design, Chan said, “If the eligibility requirements were too lenient, we had set up our students for failure. If the eligibility requirements were too stringent, we would barely have any participants . . . . Thankfully, the program has yielded success, and our CLYMER students are starting college on the right foot without a placement test or any person imposing delays on them.”

About the Author

Madeline Patton
is an education writer based in Ohio.