Better Gauges of College Readiness May Be Key to Improving Graduation Rates

July 31, 2012

College placement tests are receiving new scrutiny these days as community colleges come under increasing pressure to graduate more students.

Placement tests are used to determine how well-prepared students are for the rigor of college-level courses. Students who do poorly on the tests are usually placed in developmental, or remedial, education. In fact, about 60 percent of high-school graduates who enroll at two-year colleges have to take remedial courses. But a rash of recent studies has started to cast a doubt on the effectiveness of placement tests and their role in higher education.

"Where to Begin? The Evolving Role of Placement Exams for Students Starting College," released Tuesday by Jobs for the Future, a nonprofit organization that studies education and work-force issues, explores how institutions and even states are grappling with this issue and the decisions they are making to ensure that their students graduate.

The report highlights emerging research that has begun to challenge long-held notions about how well placement tests work in determining college readiness. One of the more striking revelations in the report is research from the Community College Research Center that found that the grades high-school students earn is a better predictor of how well they will do in college than the scores they receive on a placement test.

"Up to one-third of students were found to be 'severely misassigned' using placement-test results, and that error rate could be reduced in half by using high-school grades instead of test scores," the report says of the research center's findings.

The report also highlights research that shows "that students who are placed into developmental classes have a very low likelihood of ever completing college."

Such findings are of concern because it makes the task of graduating more students that much harder.

College placement exams tend to test students' knowledge on math and English only. But there is a growing interest among college educators and policy makers in the role that "psychosocial or noncognitive" factors, such as "academic persistence and motivation," play in college-readiness, and those perhaps should be tested as well, the report says.

Shifting Priorities

Numerous states have begun to make changes on how they gauge students' readiness for college-level course work. Those efforts cover a variety of approaches, such as de-emphasizing placement tests, tailoring or replacing the tests altogether, and preparing students better for the tests.

Some colleges, like those in New Jersey, have begun to use high-school grades as an "additional measure for students who score just above or below the cutoff score," the report says. Austin Community College, in Texas, is evaluating student essays as a way "to refine placement decisions for scores in the gray zone," it says.

Those are examples of community colleges that are putting less emphasis on placement tests.

Florida and Virginia have commissioned "customized" placement tests that would align better with their states' curricula.

Meanwhile, Texas is working with the College Board to include a "diagnostic profile" in its tailor-made assessment that would describe "each student's strengths and weaknesses for use by advisers and instructors," the report says.

Faculty have long argued that the current crop of placement tests just provide cutoff scores and that more information is needed to help students, the report says.