Debating the Value of Placement Exams: Where to Begin?

Published aug. 09, 2012

For many years, community colleges have in good faith administered placement exams to incoming students. The philosophy behind placement testing is that we can best serve our students by accurately assessing their skills and then placing them into courses that provide them with the academic supports they need to be successful—be that college-level courses, Adult Basic Education, or dev ed.

But recent research challenges this paradigm. The research comes at the question of student placement from many angles:

  1. Do students understand the high-stakes nature of tests they often take seemingly on a whim?
  2. Do the tests accurately assess students' skills?
  3. (And the one that most shakes the foundation of these exams): Do long developmental education sequences actually harm students' chances of ever graduating?

The research has sparked fiery national debates. Some believe that relying on a single cutoff score to determine a student's future is terribly unfair. Others argue that the research is flawed and that placement tests, when properly validated by faculty, work fairly well. And recently there have been calls to abandon developmental education entirely.

The majority, however, are a bit stumped by the complexities of this debate, the swirl it has caused, and the challenges it poses to long-practiced, entrenched, and expensive practices. JFF’s new report, Where to Begin?, brings clarity to this pressing issue by organizing existing research by the different questions and options states and systems are facing. Over the next couple weeks, our report’s author, Pamela Burdman, will post entries on this blog each dedicated to breaking down a segment of the research. We encourage you to share your thoughts and experiences, as well as ask any questions you may have. We look forward to the conversation!

Photograph courtesy Community College of Denver, 2004