Standardized Tests That Fail

Standardized tests are placing community college students who are ready for college into remedial classes, two studies find, making them less likely to earn degrees.

February 29, 2012

Large numbers of community college students are being placed into remedial courses they don’t need, according to new studies that questions the value of the two primary standardized tests two-year colleges use to place students: the COMPASS and the ACCUPLACER.

The research, which analyzed data from a large, urban community college system and a statewide two-year system, found that up to a third of students who placed into remedial classes on the basis of the placement tests could have passed college-level classes with a grade of B or better.

The studies used student-level information provided by the institutions to compare how the tests predicted student success, comparing their accuracy with indicators gleaned from high school grades. The Community College Research Center at Columbia University's Teachers College released the two studies Tuesday.

“We find that placement tests do not yield strong predictions of how students will perform in college,” the researchers wrote. “In contrast, high school GPAs are useful for predicting many aspects of students’ college performance.”

For example, the urban community college study found placement exams to be better predictors of success in math than in English, and more predictive of who is likely to do well in college-level course work than of who is likely to fail. And the research on the state system found the tests to be poor at predicting future college grades, with the best performing test, the COMPASS, accounting for only 5 percent of the variation in student grades.

The research tackles a subject -- remedial, or developmental, education -- that experts consider the primary obstacle to more students earning college degrees. About 6 in 10 community college students are assigned to remedial classes. Credits earned in those classes generally do not count toward graduation, although most students pay tuition for them.

Even more problematic, remedial education is a black hole from which comparatively few students ever emerge. Only 25 percent of students in remedial classes will eventually earn a degree from a community college or transfer to a four-year college, research has found.

The accuracy of placement tests has been the subject of little research, the researchers said. But the new studies suggest that colleges should reconsider how they use the tests to decide which students need remediation.

The ACT, Inc., offers the COMPASS test while the College Board offers ACCUPLACER. The studies were not distributed until late Tuesday, and neither organization responded to a request for comment.

There are several unresolved questions about the two studies. The researchers caution that the validity of placement tests depends on how they are used, and it is not clear which remedial classes to waive for students with strong high school GPAs.

Research has also criticized the strength of academics at colleges, most notably in the book Academically Adrift. And some critics might question whether a predicted college grade of B or better actually signifies that students don’t need remedial work.

However, the two new studies found strong evidence that high school GPAs are better predictors of student success than placement tests.

“Information on a student’s high school transcript could complement or substitute for that student’s placement test scores,” according to the report. “This would lead to a faster and more successful progression through college.”

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Paul Fain

Paul Fain, Contributing Editor, came to Inside Higher Ed in September 2011, after a six-year stint covering leadership and finance for The Chronicle of Higher Education. Paul has also worked in higher ed P.R., with Widmeyer Communications, but couldn't stay away from reporting. A former staff writer for C-VILLE Weekly, a newspaper in Charlottesville, Va., Paul has written for The New York Times, Washington City Paper and Mother Jones. He's won a few journalism awards, including one for beat reporting from the Education Writers Association and the Dick Schaap Excellence in Sports Journalism Award. Paul got hooked on journalism while working too many hours at The Review, the student newspaper at the University of Delaware, where he earned a degree in political science in 1996. A native of Dayton, Ohio, and a long-suffering fan of the Cincinnati Bengals, Fain plays guitar in a band with more possible names than polished songs.

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