Community college placement tests are a big deal. They determine whether someone can enroll in credit-bearing courses or is in need of serious remediation. But, according to a new report, many students simply don’t understand the high-stakes nature of these tests and are, more often than not, completely unprepared to take them.
WestEd, an education research organization, released a report  Friday about “students’ perceptions of assessment and course placement” in California’s community colleges. The report is based, in part, on interviews with 257 students at five California community colleges. Though the report’s authors also analyzed community college assessment and placement policies statewide to show their rampant inconsistency, they stress the importance of documenting student confusion about how this system works.
“In the national debates about improving college readiness and increasing college completion, student voices have largely been absent,” said Kathy Reeves Bracco, senior research associate at WestEd and report co-author, in a statement. “Our systems of K-12 education and postsecondary education are not connected and it’s students who pay the price by not being prepared for college.”
This disconnect is particularly worrying in California, the authors argue, given that unprecedented budget cuts  have forced community colleges around the state to turn away students by the thousands . By more effectively assessing and placing students, they continue, the state’s community colleges could “not only help improve student success but also make more efficient use of scarce resources.”
While still in high school, the students interviewed said that they did not think they needed to “do anything extra” to prepare for community college. In other words, most thought “graduating from high school” was enough.
With this in mind upon enrolling at community college, many students said they thought the placement tests were meant to capture them “at a point in time without the benefit of studying.” This is a clear misunderstanding, as California community college officials note that students should review for these tests.
“Normally I don’t really like to prepare for anything that has to do with things like placement tests, because in a way it feels like I’m cheating myself a little,” said one student quoted in the report. “I’m thinking, ‘Well, I didn’t know these concepts before the test, and all of a sudden they tell me that I have a test coming up. So let me prepare for that.’ And it feels like I’m sort of cheating.”
Similarly, many students reported that they did not realize, or were not told, that the test would immediately affect their ability to take credit-bearing courses.
“[The woman at the test center] said, ‘It doesn’t matter how you place. It’s just to see where you are,’” recalled another student quoted in the report. “Looking back, that’s not true. It’s really important.”
The fallout from being placed into remedial courses frustrates students in many ways. Some said there wasn’t enough information from the colleges about how to challenge the scores on their placement tests. Others, after being in a remedial course for a few sessions, said that it was too easy for them. Mostly, though, the students reported that their educational aspirations had been dampened significantly.
“If you take a placement test and find out you’re one or two classes behind, that’s OK — three years [to earn an associate degree],” said a student quoted in the report. “That’s if you place right below transfer-level classes. If you place further down, you’re going to be here for a while. And I think that’s the community college’s way. I see people that have been here, it seems like, forever and they’re kind of stuck here.”
Aside from these troubling student impressions, the study found that local policies regarding the waiting period for students to retake placement tests range from no time at all to upward of three years. Additionally, cut scores , or the minimum students can earn on a test and still enroll in credit-bearing courses, vary. As a result, many community colleges in the state do not accept placement scores from other institutions. Finally, of course, the number of levels of remediation offered vary from one college to another.
The report’s authors offer a set of recommendations to remedy this situation. For instance, they suggest that “diagnostic assessment for college courses begin in high school,” ideally by the junior year, so that students have the chance to do the work necessary to avoid remediation. Also, though the authors do not call for colleges around the state to adopt uniform policies and practices regarding placement, they do argue that the state should encourage institutions to develop clearer messages about what they expect from incoming students.
“Let’s hope that California community colleges can agree on common assessments and communicate unified messages about the level of preparation that students need for college,” said Andrea Venezia, another senior research associate at WestEd and report co-author. “But we urge the state, system and institutions not to have uniformity around a poor set of policies or practices. The current assessments are not diagnostic for helping students know what specific areas they need to focus on in become better prepared, and they are not connected to high-school expectations.”
Few education officials around the state were surprised by the report’s findings. They, too, have ideas about how the state should work to alleviate this assessment confusion.
Jane Patton, president of the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges and a communications professor at Mission College, noted that many faculty members around the state would prefer to maintain local control over placement. Currently, the state’s 112 community colleges set their own cut scores for placement tests and have their own sequence of remedial courses.
“We’re not a factory,” said Patton, dismissing the idea of establishing state-wide cut scores. “We’re not churning out widgets.... Faculty want control of this. One size doesn’t fit all.”
Still, Patton acknowledged that there would be significant merit in streamlining the assessment process, and pointed out a number of initiatives going on around the state to do just that.
For instance, CCCAssess , a grant-funded project, is aiming to leverage the purchasing power of the system to generate a common assessment tool for California community colleges that wish to participate. And California State University’s Early Assessment Program  gives prospective students the opportunity “to measure their readiness for college-level English and mathematics in their junior year of high school, and to facilitate opportunities for them to improve their skills during their senior year.”