High school grades vs. placement tests

High school grades are a better predictor of success in college courses than placement tests, argues Eloy Oakley, president/superintendent of Long Beach City College (LBCC) in California. He testified at a Senate education committee hearing on improving minority students’ college success.

A few years ago, when LBCC relied on placement tests, 90 percent of new students were placed in remedial courses, reports Community College Daily. In 2012, under the Promise Pathways initiative, the college shifted to assessing high school transcripts.

The college — where more than 83 percent of students come from minority ethnic groups and 62 percent are first-generation college students — also provided these students with clear, first-semester education plans and registration priority to ensure that they enrolled in foundational courses right away.

As a result, the completion rates of transfer-level English in the first year jumped from 12 percent to 41 percent, according to LBCC. For transfer-level math, it rose in the first year from 5 percent to 15 percent. Students in these programs had the same success rates as those who were directed in several semesters of developmental education.

LBCC works closely with the city’s school district to determine whether students can handle college-level courses.

California study finds achievement gaps

“Disturbing” achievement gaps were found in a new study of what high school tests predict about students’ first year performance at community colleges, notes John Rosenberg on Minding the Campus.

The study measured students’ performance on the California Standards Test as high school juniors against their first year community college performance in four areas: the portion of the classes they took that transferable to the California State University system; the portion of remedial classes taken; and their grades in both types. In dramatically unsurprising findings. . .  the authors found that students with the best scores on the CST had higher grades their first year in community college and were enrolled in fewer remedial classes.

One finding was surprising: “Regardless of their academic achievements in high school, Asian and white students consistently enroll in more transferable courses than their Latino and black counterparts do,” the study found. Whites and Asians in the bottom 25% of CST performance enroll in more transferable courses that blacks and Hispanics in the top 25%.

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Latinos and blacks may have attended high schools with lower academic standards, start with less “college knowledge” and be sidelined by placement tests with cultural biases, Michal Kurlaender, an associate professor at the University of California at Davis’s School of Education, told Inside Higher Ed.

Tests place most students in remedial rut

Researchers say community colleges place too many students in dead-end remedial classes, reports Education Week.

“Remediation is the typical experience now,” especially at urban community colleges, said Judith Scott-Clayton, an assistant professor of economics and education at Teachers College and an author of an influential study that analyzed an urban and statewide community college system. Eighty percent of urban students and 70 percent of statewide students failed the math placement test. Yet a look at students’  high school transcripts showed a different story.

She found that 20 percent of students placed in remedial math and 25 percent of those placed in remedial reading were “severely misidentified,” meaning that not only could they have passed the entry college course in that subject, but they could have done so with a grade of B or better.

“The high school transcript info is basically more accurate for every group we look at,” Ms. Scott-Clayton said. “It’s true that it’s more subjective, but you are getting multiple measurements accumulated over time across several instructors. And it is capturing a broader array of skills, not just pure mechanical test-taking skills, but effort, persistence, motivation—things that we know matter a lot for college success.”

However, she found results uneven for specific racial groups: While fewer Hispanic students were placed in remedial courses using high school information, more young black men were pulled into remediation.

At several Texas community colleges requiring universal placement tests, 30 percent of students assigned to remediation were  “college ready” based on their scores on the ACT, SAT, and state test scores, a RAND researcher concluded. Texas will develop its own placement test aligned to state college readiness standards.

The new assessment includes diagnostic tests to identify specific problem areas in each subject, and the coordinating board will require colleges and universities to use those to plan more targeted remediation—for example, enrolling a student in a credit-bearing class while providing tutoring or an elective class to fill gaps in the student’s knowledge in that subject.

The diagnostic part of the exam will help students catch up quickly,  so they don’t have “to take a 15-week course, go into this sinking hole, and rot for the next two years,” said Judith Loredo, the assistant commissioner for the P-16 initiative.

Colleges rely heavily on placement exams

Most colleges use placement tests alone — usually ACCUPLACER or COMPASS — to determine whether students start in remedial or college-level courses, despite concerns about inaccurate placement, according to a National Assessment Governing Board study. Only a small minority of colleges use high school grades, class rank or other criteria to determine placement.

Colleges don’t agree on what cut scores indicate college readiness, writes Paul Fain on Inside Higher Ed. Community colleges typically require a higher score than four-year colleges and universities.

Half of all undergraduates and 70 percent of community college students take at least one remedial course. Most will not go on to complete a credential. Some reformers think remedial courses — not poor preparation — are the problem.

Many students are placed unnecessarily in remedial courses, according to several Community College Research Center studies.

For example, among two large samples of community college students who were deemed to have remedial needs based on standardized placement tests, up to a third could have passed college-level classes with a grade of B or better. (Companies that produce the tests have defended them in response to the studies and resulting criticism.)

The research also found that high school GPAs are better predictors of student success than placement tests.

However, grades may not say much about the many community college students who’ve been out of school for years. At the Community College of Baltimore County, for example, the median age is 28. Instead of evaluating high school transcripts, CCBC provides pre-test workshops and practice exams to help new students do well on the placement tests.

‘A’ students don’t belong in remedial ed

Are College Entrants Overdiagnosed as Underprepared? More A students are being placed in remedial college classes, notes researcher Judith Scott-Clayton on the New York Times‘ Economix blog. “For students with high school grade-point averages between 3.5 and 4.0, remediation rates have more than doubled.”  It’s not grade inflation, she writes, because  “the percentage of students with G.P.A.’s in this range has not changed.”  She thinks it’s the increasing use of not-very-accurate placement tests.

Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Beginning Postsecondary Students database; computation by N.C.E.S. QuickStats.

Most students who enter remedial classes never make it out, she writes.

My own research, using data from a large urban community college system with particularly high remediation rates, estimates that one in four students assigned to math remediation could have passed a college-level math course with a grade of B or better and one in three students assigned to English remediation could have passed freshman composition with a B or better.

“Exempting students with strong high school backgrounds from placement testing could lower remediation rates by 8 to 12 percentage points, without affecting pass rates in college-level courses,” Scott-Clayton writes.

Colleges place too many on remedial track

Using unreliable placement tests, community colleges place tens of thousands of  students in remedial classes they don’t need, conclude two studies by the Community College Research Center.  Starting in developmental education significantly lowers students’ odds for success.

In both an urban community college system and a statewide system, more than a quarter of the students assigned to remedial classes could have passed college-level courses with a grade of B or higher, researchers concluded. High school grade-point averages would be as good as or better than the placement tests, the authors said. Using both would be ideal, Clive Belfield, one of the authors, told the New York Times.

Many community colleges are rethinking remedial education, which is sometimes called higher education’s Bermuda Triangle.

“I haven’t seen the studies, but what I do know is that when I talk with leaders of community colleges, a lot of them have issues with the diagnostic tests and sense that far too many students are being put in developmental, remedial education, especially in math,” said Walter G. Bumphus, president of the American Association of Community Colleges. “Almost every one of them has some plan to change that.”

Some community colleges let students who place into remedial classes take a college-level class along with a support class to help with basic skills. Others tailor requirements to students’ course of study.

At Lake Area Technical Institute in South Dakota, each of the 27 majors has different admissions standards, so that, for example, precision-machining students need higher math scores than those studying cosmetology.

“We get some students with rusty math skills who do poorly on the test, and we send them to a Web site where they can brush up their skills and take the test again, and most of them do fine,” said Deb Shephard, Lake Area’s president. “It’s less than 5 percent of our entering students who need remediation, and they do it on their lunch hour, side by side with the other courses they’re taking.”

At some community colleges, students who place into developmental courses can choose to start at the college level, even if there’s no support class. They’re almost as likely to pass as their classmates and do as well as similar students who completed the remedial placement, earlier research has found.