Better Student Placement

Published mar. 12, 2012

You may have seen the news last week that huge numbers of community college students are being required to take remedial courses they don’t need. Two studies from the Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College found that more than a quarter of students who place into developmental education based on their Compass and Accuplacer test scores could actually have passed college-level classes with a B or better.

This research is calling attention to what we have long suspected: these single placement tests aren’t good at predicting whether a student will succeed in college, yet they are used to make what can be life-altering decisions. Students required to take developmental courses lose crucial time, money, and momentum toward completion. For those who start in developmental education, less than a quarter go on to earn a two-year degree or transfer to a four-year college. Yet, the studies found, tens of thousands of students could have bypassed those courses and still performed successfully in college.

These findings don’t mean that all college courses should have an open door, or that assessments have no place in course placement. What we need is a more thoughtful and nuanced student intake and placement process, one that takes into account multiple measures of student potential and offers appropriate counseling and support.

College systems should work with placement test vendors to improve these assessments, and colleges should consider other indicators in addition to a test score, such as a student’s high school grades, courses taken in high school, any previous performance in college classes, or academic portfolios. Students should be given the opportunity to prepare for their placement test. Instead, according to a recent WestEd study, many students enter the test cold, unaware that their scores will be used for placement. Finally, colleges should make their best effort to help students who need remediation accelerate their college trajectories—for example, by allowing them to enroll in credit-bearing coursework while receiving tutoring or by using digital learning to enable students to focus only on the college-ready skills they lack. This is being done in community colleges across Tennessee and nationwide.

We need to support our overcrowded and cash-strapped community colleges to perform intake in a way that better supports and encourages student success. Those who enroll in community college are the often the students with the most barriers to completion. We should make it easier for them by removing as many hurdles as we can.