Ditching the single, standardized placement test

A growing number of community colleges over the years have started using alternatives to a single, standardized placement test to determine if students can do college-level work. Now a new study supports that such alternative measures are indeed more accurate in gauging students’ math and English skills in deciding whether they need remediation.

According to early results from a study of 13,000 students at seven State University of New York community colleges, colleges using a broader set of measures to place students can boost enrollment in college-level courses — and students have shown that they can keep up.

Researchers from the Center for the Analysis of Postsecondary Readiness (CAPR) found that when colleges used multiple measures to place students, assignment to college-level courses jumped by 5 percentage points in math and more than 30 percentage points in English. Students placed using multiple measures were more likely to pass a college-level English or math course in their first term than comparison students.

“While still early, these findings indicate that an algorithm combining multiple measures more accurately predicts success in college-level courses than a single test, and will allow more students to take and pass college-level math and English early in college,” said Elisabeth Barnett, the lead researcher on the project. “We will know more about longer term outcomes at the end of the study, but at the very least, we know that multiple measures placement can spare many students from taking courses they don’t need.”

A better read

The colleges in the study used a predictive algorithm that took into account multiple factors, including high school GPA and years since high school graduation, to determine whether incoming students would have to take remedial math or English. Past research has shown that when schools rely only on standardized tests to measure college readiness, many learners are placed into developmental courses when they could succeed in college-level courses.

The interim study noted that remedial courses may help some students, but taking those extra non-credit courses means more time and money that they could apply toward credit courses.

“Federal data indicate that two thirds of community college students and 40 percent of students at four-year public colleges take at least one remedial course during college, so misplacement potentially affects hundreds of thousands of students,” the study says. In fact, it estimates that between one-third and one-half of students are “misplaced” in math and English in college. They include “underplaced” students — those put in a remedial course but would have likely been able to complete an initial college-level course with a “C” or better — and “overplaced” students, who were placed into and failed at a college-level course.

Results and challenges

Some of the early results from the study’s first cohort of 4,729 students:

  • In math, 14 percent of students placed higher than they would have as a result of multiple measures assessment; 7 percent placed lower.
  • In English, 41.5 percent of students placed higher than they would have as a result of multiple measures assessment; 6.5 percent placed lower.
  • Students placed using multiple measures were more likely to enroll in and pass a college-level course in their first term: 3.1 percentage points in math and 12.5 percentage points in English.

Although college officials interviewed for the study largely favored new measures for placement, they noted that change comes with challenges, from getting buy-in to quickly alter a set system, to logistics — obtaining and entering large amounts of high school transcript data into a college’s system.

Implementing an alternative system also would add, on average, about $110 per student for testing and placement, according to the report. But those costs decrease to, on average, about $40 per student annual after the first year.

The full results of the study by CAPR, a research center led by the Community College Research Center at Columbia University, and MDRC, a social policy research organization, will come out in 2019.

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CCDaily is published by the American Association of Community Colleges.
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