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Study on College Placement Exams Energizes Debate about Their Effectiveness

The ongoing discussion about the effectiveness of college placement exams got a welcome boost this week with a new report that illuminates efforts to rethink how the tests should be used to determine if students need remedial education.

Part of the discussion in the report questions the effectiveness of remedial education itself.

The report—titled “Where To Begin? The Evolving Role Of Placement Exams For Students Starting College” –- was produced by Jobs for the Future, a Boston, Mass.-based education policy group that is one of several nonprofits working to dramatically increase the number of low-income youth and adults who attain a post-secondary credential over the next decade.

A college placement exam critic as well as a representative from the maker of a commonly-used college placement exam both said the report represents a timely look at an area of higher education that is overdue for reform.

“We’ve been advocating for almost everything that’s been indicated in the report for quite a few years now,” said David Parmele, executive director in the ACCUPLACER program for the College Board.

The ACCUPLACER is a college placement exam produced by the College Board.

“We do not believe that the placement score alone should be the only factor used to decide a student’s placement into college-level classes,” Parmele said, echoing a key aspect of the report—namely, how some systems are weighing the merits of moving away from the widespread practice of using the test scores as the only basis for assigning students to remedial classes and toward using multiple measures, such as high school grades.

Dr. Ling-Chi Wang, Professor Emeritus in Asian American Studies at UC Berkeley and a longtime critic of college placement exams, also praised the report.

“I thought it was high time somebody raised this issue and questioned the validity and the quality of the effectiveness and, in some cases, the abuse of remedial tests to sometimes prevent people from moving forward academically or even prevent people from getting admitted (to college),” Wang said.

Wang said college placement tests tend to hurt immigrant and low-income students the most by keeping them out of college or landing them in a series of burdensome non-credit-bearing remedial education courses, despite the fact that research has shown students can be remediated within the framework of regular credit-bearing courses.

“Everybody knows that your test score is really directly correlated with your income and, of course, your immigration status,” Wang said. “Those are the most important factors in deciding whether you pass all theses tests or not.”

The report’s author, Pamela Burdman, a Chicago-based consultant on issues of college readiness and success, said the report is meant to provoke discussion on the usefulness of college placement tests at a time when greater emphasis is being placed on the value of a college degree and when research is showing that remedial education is often ineffective.

“I think high stakes decisions are being made about students’ futures on the basis of fairly thin evidence,” Burdman said, amplifying one of the key points of her report. “I think the field is moving more in the direction of finding ways to give students the benefit of the doubt. In other words, if their exam score is low but their grades are high, do we find a way to interpret that so that this student can be successful?”

She continued: “If our goal is trying to help students get to a degree, a lot of colleges are saying, ‘Shouldn’t we be trying these approaches to help students get to these points,’ rather than saying, ‘We need to enforce these standards and I don’t know if these students are up to snuff.’”

Although the report is largely directed at community colleges, it has implications for four-year institutions as well, Burdman said.

The report cites some of the latest research in the field and gives examples of higher education systems that are wrestling with how to make the best use of college placement exams.

It also deals with the merits of alternative approaches, from downplaying the tests by reducing reliance on placement scores, to “mainstreaming” students into regular classes with support—a practice that the report says evidence has shown can potentially work with some students whose test scores are below the cutoff.

The report also gives a nod to the “tradeoffs and tensions” associated with changing the status quo. One such tension concerns the battle between effectiveness and efficiency—the latter being one of the hallmarks of using a single test and a cutoff score as opposed to other methods that involve more discretion.

“There’s still a place for (college placement exams) but they need to be used in the right combination with all of these other factors,” the College Board’s Parmele said. “No one’s found that secret formula as to what works best.”

Burdman conceded similar thoughts.

“One of the reasons colleges rely on placement exams in the first place is [that] it’s efficient and transparent,” Burdman said. “It’s sort of seen as fair, whereas, if you start introducing a more complex system, it takes more staff time and more money, which many colleges just don’t have.”

“Secondly, it opens up the opportunity for people to question the fairness,” Burdman said of moving away from rigid cutoff scores and toward more flexibility and discretion.  “I do think college systems are being very cautious about this because they don’t want to wade into an area where they’re seen as using an amount of discretion that leads to unfairness or inequality.”

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