College & Workforce Readiness

How Useful Are College Placement Tests in High School?

By Catherine Gewertz — January 12, 2017 2 min read
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What would happen if you gave a college-readiness test and no one came?

That’s the question hanging over South Dakota at the moment. Well, an exaggerated version of the question.

Worried about high remediation rates at their state colleges and universities, state leaders tried an experiment: They’d provide more money for high school students to take a free Accuplacer test, which is designed to measure readiness for college coursework. They’d make sure districts knew that students could create and complete custom coursework designed to fix the academic problems identified by the test.

Problem is, hardly anyone wanted to do this.

News of this lukewarm response tumbled out this week in Gov. Dennis Daugaard’s State of the State speech. He reported that few school districts have embraced this approach to improving college readiness among their students.

Frustrated, Gov. Daugaard noted that the state has a big problem that needs a solution: Nearly one third of its university students have to take at least one remedial course in English/language arts or math. Students have to pay tuition even though those courses carry no credit, a phenomenon that research shows often contributes to students accruing debt, falling behind, and dropping out of college.

The governor estimated that those remedial courses cost South Dakota students about $500,000 in tuition.

Accuplacer is typically used by colleges to determine if students are ready to be placed in credit-bearing, entry-level courses. But South Dakota decided four years ago to use it as an early-screening tool in high schools, to help spot academic weaknesses before students get to college. The state circulated information to districts, encouraging them to use the system for students with mediocre scores on the ACT or Smarter Balanced exam.

Only one-third of the school districts in South Dakota have offered the Accuplacer and its accompanying customized coursework to students, though, according to local news reports. And only 100 students in the state took the Accuplacer test last year, Daugaard said.

Maybe one reason is that students must take the customized remedial coursework, online or with an in-person teacher, in addition to their other classes. Retaking it at the end of the year, with a high enough score, allows them to skip remedial classes in college.

State officials speculated that senioritis might be playing a role in the lackluster embrace of Accuplacer. They also said they might need to work harder to let districts know about the option, because it might be getting lost in the shuffle of other college-prep options that are available to students, according to local news reports.

A version of this news article first appeared in the High School & Beyond blog.