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The Unchecked Power of the College Placement Test

The current system of placement tests for college freshman may be the greatest hurdle to long-term success in higher education.


Every year, thousands of students walk onto college campuses excited to start their postsecondary education. But many are in for a rude awakening: They cannot take regular college classes unless they first pass placement tests. For these students, college suddenly becomes longer and more expensive because they must complete one or more semesters of remedial courses that do not count toward a degree.

Students don’t have the time and money to waste sitting in remedial courses that represent a barrier to earning a degree. Many give up immediately, but others venture on, only to eventually run out of steam and drop out before meeting remedial requirements. According to the Community College Research Center, less than half of these students finish remedial courses and less than one-fourth of remedial students at community colleges go on to earn a certificate or degree within eight years.


One would expect that such high-stakes assessments would be appropriately administered and thoroughly reliable. The College Board and ACT did not develop their assessment tools as sorting mechanisms, but unfortunately, on many campuses, they are used to arbitrarily assign students to varying levels of developmental education. It is not uncommon for two students at different institutions with the same test score to get different placements—one in remediation and another in college-level work.

Two of the most common tests—the Accuplacer and COMPASS—can tell you the likelihood that a student placed in a college-level course will succeed. But because many institutions or systems set their own cut-off scores without conducting appropriate validity testing, the tests are not a statistically reliable tool for placing students.

Recent research from the CCRC, MDRC and WestEd also reveals some troubling practices on how institutions both administer the exams and use the results. On many campuses, students are unaware that they need to take a placement test, are unable to access resources on how to prepare, and don't understand the high-stakes nature of the exam. As a result of these practices, the assessments tell us little about a student’s ability to succeed in college-level courses and more about how institutional practice often stands in the way of student success. Complete College America recently released a report that underscores the devastating consequences of a broken remediation system on college completion rates.

Evidence is building that assessments stand in the way of student success. A study conducted by CCRD in Virginia community colleges found that many students who placed into remedial courses, but who chose to enroll directly into college-level courses, were just as successful as those who took a semester of remediation. In addition, models like the Accelerated Learning Project at the Community College of Baltimore County and the Structured Assistance Program at Austin Peay University have shown that students who are typically placed in up to two levels of remediation can be successful at college-level courses if provided additional academic support. Most impressive about these models is that they eliminate the phenomenon of students never enrolling in college-level courses, which significantly improves college-retention rates.

States should follow Colorado's lead—they're planning a new system that will eliminate the use of cut scores on assessments as a sorting tool. Instead, the state’s community colleges are considering the use of diagnostic assessments that provide students and faculty better information on academic deficiencies and other non-cognitive factors like motivation. This more precise information will more effectively determine whether students can be successful in college-level courses, or at the very least, enable more appropriate placement into a remedial experience that specifically addresses their needs.

In addition to improving assessment systems, schools should implement low-cost and reasonable fixes, like providing short tutoring sessions prior to assessment, discouraging students from taking the test on the same day they enroll, providing practice tests online, and fully informing students of the potential consequences of their performance on the assessment. These moves can help avoid a faulty placement that can deter student success.

Given that the current system of assessment and placement may be the greatest hurdle to college success, our nation can’t afford to ignore it. According to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, by 2018, 63 percent of jobs in America will require some form of postsecondary education or training. Reforming the system will drastically improve the college success of thousands of students who want nothing more than to earn a credential and find a well-paying job.

Photo (cc) via Flickr user Cushing Memorial Library and Archives, Texas A&M

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