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How Valuable Are College-Placement Tests?

College readiness is getting examined like never before. As tricky as it is to define exactly what "college readiness," it could be even trickier to figure out how to assess such readiness. Colleges have long used placement tests to figure out whether students are ready for entry-level, credit-bearing coursework, or should be funneled instead into remedial (or "developmental") classes.

Boatloads of students are ending up in remedial coursework. Whether that is an indicator of poor high school preparation, poor assessment instruments or both, the depressing results for students are the same: getting mired in those classes drastically reduces their chances of finishing college.

As the field tries to get its arms around how it can ensure better-prepared students, with better chances of finishing postsecondary education, the placements tests themselves are coming under increasing scrutiny. Recent research, for instance, found that placement test results are weaker predictors of success in college course than are high school grades.

Now a new report explores some of the changes that colleges are making—or contemplating—to make the readiness-and-placement conversation more meaningful and productive. The report, by Boston-based Jobs For the Future, looks at things states and localities are doing to downplay placement tests, change them, or offer students more support as they approach them.

North Carolina emerges as a particular hub of thinking and action on this issue, possibly because its community college system commissioned one of the recent studies that shed light on the problems with placement tests. The state has contracted with the College Board to design a new test that will better reflect the state's curriculum and use new kinds of questions—interactive questions—to try to get at additional facets of students' proficiencies.

Instead of using only that test to make placement decisions, however, North Carolina is exploring using additional information, such as high school grades, and possibly "non cognitive" factors (presumably things like motivation) as well.

New Jersey, as well, plans to add high school grades to the course-placement picture, according to the JFF report. Such information will be factored into decisions for students who score within a certain range of the passing zone on the widely used Accuplacer test. Austin Community College in Texas is doing something similar by factoring student essays into decisions for students who score in that "gray zone."

The study points out, as we have here many times, that the common assessments being designed by the two big state testing consortia offer a potential bridge over the placement tests colleges have required. In theory, at the moment, large swaths of the higher-ed systems in those two consortia have agreed to use the results of the common assessments as proxies of "readiness," and allow students who hit the "college readiness" marks on those tests to skip remedial courses.

Some systems are building new supports in for students, leading up to the placement test, or once they've produced a score just below the cutoff for credit-bearing work. Santa Monica College in California, a community college, offers an online orientation to its placement test, letting students in on what to expect and how to prepare for it. Students were more likely to place into credit-bearing math and English courses after taking that orientation. The Community College of Baltimore County schedules students who score just below that placement cutoff into a special, additional English/language arts class that provides simultaneous support for the college-level course.

All of this activity could reshape how high schools prepare young people for college, and how colleges gauge the readiness of incoming students. But the JFF report points out that it's slow, difficult work fraught with many institutional and logistical challenges.

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