• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Placing Adults

How do you know who needs extra help? How do you know an honors student when you see one?

May 11, 2015

How do you know who needs extra help? Alternately, how do you know an Honors student when you see one?

For years, most community colleges relied on a single placement test given at the time of admission. (Accuplacer and Compass are among the more common.) A score on reading, writing, or math would indicate that a student needed remediation, could start at the college level, or was potentially Honors material.  

Over time, the limits of “one test to rule them all” have become clear. Anyone can have an unusually good or bad day. Students often don’t take the test seriously. Many take it “cold,” when a quick review of some basic math would have been enough to bump them up. And performance on any single test doesn’t tell you much, if anything, about work ethic, ability and willingness to seek extra help, and all the various “non-cognitive” skills (inelegantly called “non-cogs”) that affect success.

Many colleges now are moving to “multi-factor” placement, which usually means combining a test score with a high school GPA. The idea is that a GPA captures many of the non-cognitive skills over time. A student who consistently punches above her weight, based on test scores, probably has good study skills. Nothing predicts success in school like a record of success in school.

But a high school GPA is of limited value with adults. It may tell you something meaningful about an eighteen year old, but I’d be surprised if it told you much that mattered about a twenty-eight year old. A lot can happen in those intervening years, for better and worse.  

So how do you place a twenty-eight year old?

Historically, nobody really asked. Selective colleges and universities didn’t do much with students beyond traditional age, at least at the undergraduate level. Community colleges did, but they didn’t devote a lot of thought to placement; they administered tests and let the scores tell the story. Now that we’re focusing more on student success, and the limitations of the predictive power of placement exams are getting harder to ignore, the question is becoming more relevant.

In a perfect world, of course, we could look at portfolios, essays, and other personalized forms of assessment. But most community colleges have nowhere near the staffing level to make that practical.  Part of the institutional appeal of standardized tests is that they require minimal staffing. Theoretically, colleges could eliminate entire programs to free up the resources for greater staffing in admissions, but I’ve never seen one actually try it.  

The issue is probably easier at the high end.  How do you spot an Honors student? I’m thinking you give any student who wants a shot a semester to prove herself; if she gets a GPA of x or above, she’s in. It has a certain simplicity, and the argument that success in college shows the ability to succeed in college is hard to refute.  

At the low end, though, it’s a real problem.

We -- and many other colleges -- offer free mini-prep classes to get students ready for placement exams. They’re particularly helpful in math, where students who’ve learned the material before but haven’t used it in a while can get up to speed with a quick reminder. (I’m experiencing a version of that in helping The Boy with algebra. It’s much easier the second time.) A quick review isn’t enough for a student who had never seen the material before, but it helps some folks shake off the rust and show what they can do.  

Florida has essentially thrown up its hands and decided to let students place themselves. I’ve been in email contact with some folks at Seminole State, who shared with me that very early results are decidedly underwhelming. (They took pains to note that it’s still much too early to say anything definitive, though.)  If the solution were as simple as saying “bleep it,” I’d happily jump on board. It appears that it may not be that simple.

Given that high school GPA’s may not be terribly useful, or even accessible, for students beyond a certain age, has anyone found a reasonably efficient and elegant way to place adults?


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