College & Workforce Readiness

Research Looks at Value of Community College Placement Exam

By Caralee J. Adams — March 01, 2012 1 min read
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When students transition into a community college, the results of their placement tests determine a great deal about their future. More than half of all entering students end up being funneled into a developmental education class. Often, it’s not a promising pathway: Less than a quarter of those who start in remedial classes go on to complete an associate’s degree or transfer to four-year colleges.

New research from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University finds many students are misplaced in remedial classes and suggest high school grade point averages would be better predictors of college success.

One paper by Judith Scott-Clayton andanother by Clive Belfield and Peter Crostaraise questions about the widely used testing in community colleges to determine students’ course options.

The Belfield and Crosta research examines student-level data from a statewide community college system and find that placement tests do not yield strong predictions of how students will perform in college. Yet high school GPAs have a strong association with college grade performance and college-credit accumulation.

The authors also checked the accuracy of the placement tests and discovered high “severe” error rates. In English, three out of every 10 students should not have been assigned to a developmental class. And the research found if high school grades were used instead to determine placement, the error rates would be cut in half.

The second paper looks at a large, urban community college system and the validity of placement tests. The researcher found that placement exams are more predictive of success in math than in English, and more predictive of who is likely to do well in college-level coursework than of who is likely to fail. Severe misplacement could be avoided if colleges used multiple measures to make placement decisions, the author suggests.

Research released earlier this year by CCRC revealed that most students are not preparing for these high-stakes placement tests or taking advantage of extra support on campus once in developmental education. Many colleges offer this kind of help, but most don’t mandate participation.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.