September/October 2011 How the Other Half Tests

Millions of Americans are denied the chance to take college-level courses by a downscale version of the SAT.

By Susan Headden

Most colleges use one of two assessments: the Accuplacer, which is used by 62 percent of community colleges, and the COMPASS, which is administered by ACT and used by 46 percent of community colleges. (Some institutions use homegrown tests or other measures.) Both are so-called adaptive tests, which means questions are chosen for individual test takers based on how well they do on the previous question. If the student does well, the questions get harder; if he doesn’t, they get easier or stay at the same level. Like the COMPASS, the Accuplacer tests sentence skills, reading comprehension, basic math, and algebra. It also assesses a writing sample.

Students are told, reassuringly, that there is no such thing as failing the Accuplacer or the COMPASS. But there is: students who score below a certain number, or “cut score,” flunk the test for credit-bearing work. In most schools, that means that before they can enroll in for-credit, college-level courses, they have to take and pass remedial classes. At other schools, students with low cut scores can, if they insist, go straight into for-credit courses, though guidance counselors often caution them against it, or misinform them of their options.

While most students who take the SAT know it’s a life-determining experience, the high-stakes nature of the Accuplacer and similar tests comes as distressing news to most of the people who take them. A 2010 study by researchers at Northwestern University surveyed 2,000 students who took placement tests and found that 75 percent of them did not understand the significance of the tests—and two-thirds didn’t realize that remedial classes would earn them no credit. Andrea Venezia, a researcher for the policy organization West-Ed, conducted with colleagues a study of placement policies at California colleges and got similar results: the majority of test takers were unaware that their performance would determine what classes they would be able to take and whether they would receive credit. In a typical comment, one student told the researchers, “The woman at the test center said it doesn’t matter how you place. It’s just to see where you are.” Another misguided student had the placement test confused with a career aptitude assessment. “I thought it was one of those tests you take just to see what kind of field they were going to recommend,” she said.

Because they don’t know what’s coming, most students don’t prepare for the tests, even though studies have shown that a review course can raise scores enough to place students at a higher remedial level or keep them out of remediation altogether. Whereas a student taking the SAT might spend several weeks in a Kaplan or Princeton Review course, doing vocabulary drills and working with sample math problems, the typical community college student takes the placement test stone cold. There are books available, but prep courses are not nearly as numerous or institutionalized as they are for the SAT. (An Amazon search turns up thirty-five results for Accuplacer prep books, compared with 6,158 for SAT guides.) The market for Accuplacer prep is no doubt less attractive: many Accuplacer takers lack the money and the time. Fewer than half of the colleges that responded to Venezia’s survey said they provide any practice.

Students who take the SAT are often encouraged to retake it multiple times to maximize the chance of a high score. Retakes are possible with placement tests as well, but the policies for doing so depend on the institution and, again, they can work against college success. Students at Lane Community College in Oregon, for example, can’t take the test again for three months—essentially a whole semester—which is a potential deal killer for a student who is older, employed, and in a hurry. At one community college in California cited by Venezia, the wait to retake the placement test was three years, a delay tantamount to no second chance at all. “They basically can’t go,” she says.

Even if placement tests are administered inconsistently, and students given too little preparation, the use of them might be easier to defend if they were accurate predictors of whether students will be successful in college work. If fact, little research has been conducted on this crucial question. The College Board points to an independent study it commissioned that found a moderate to strong correlation between Accuplacer test scores and subsequent course performance. ACT did a study of the COMPASS that found essentially the same correlation. But Thomas Bailey, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, an authoritative research organization funded by the federal government’s Institute for Education Sciences, says that the placement tests have, at best, “only a weak relationship with educational performance.”

Indeed, research by Bailey and others suggests that Monica Dekany’s experience is not unusual, and that tests like the Accuplacer and the COMPASS routinely underestimate the ability of large numbers of students to do credit-earning college work. In 2010, Bailey and colleagues Dong Wook Jeong and Sung-Woo Cho led a study that looked at tens of thousands of community college students who scored low on placement tests and other measures but ignored the advice or instruction to take remedial classes and instead enrolled directly in a for-credit course. A full 71 percent passed the for-credit course. That’s not much lower than the 77 percent pass rate for all students who took those for-credit courses. And it’s only slightly lower than the pass rate for students who first took and completed remedial courses. As the researchers note, however, many who start in remedial classes either drop out or fail before they ever take a credit-bearing course. Factor that in, and only about 27 percent of those who agreed to take remedial courses ultimately passed for-credit courses, as opposed to the 72 percent who blew off remediation. “It appears,” the researchers concluded, “that the students in this sample who ignored the advice of their counselors and proceeded directly to college-level courses made wise decisions.” Michael W. Kirst, a former professor of education at Stanford University and a member of the California state board of education, said the findings “suggest strongly that student access may be unfairly denied and that many students capable of success are not given the chance to try.”

This may explain what happened to Monica Dekany. In the early 1990s she had learned enough math and English to pass college courses. Nearly two decades later, she had forgotten enough of that material to fail the Accuplacer. But who actually remembers much of what they learned in college, let alone high school?

Here’s a sample question on the elementary algebra portion of the Accuplacer:

What is the value of 2x² + 3xy - 4y² when x = 2 and y = -4?

A.) -80. B.) 80 C.) -32 D.) 32.

It’s a fairly simple question. (The answer is A.) But many middle-aged adults with college degrees would probably flub it—especially with no opportunity to prepare. Indeed, when Boylan gave the math Accuplacer to forty-two community college faculty members and administrators attending a recent conference, everybody but the math teachers scored poorly. “Almost all of them would have ended up in remediation,” he said.

Susan Headden , a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, is a senior writer/editor at Education Sector, a Washington, D.C., think tank.


  • MR on August 29, 2011 2:24 PM:

    I got put into remedial math courses by the ACT years ago while scoring highly on everything else.
    I probably just needed a review or tutoring but ended up having to take two semesters of math before I could take college-level math.
    The first semester especially was a total waste of time. Preliminary reading told me all I needed to know and the rest was just trying to make it through the classes without getting discouraged.

  • TS on August 29, 2011 3:07 PM:

    "2x2 + 3xy - 4y2"

    You mean 2x^2 and 4y^2 where ^ means "raised to the power"? Or is it 2x2 where x stands for multiplication?

    I think you need to fix the layout on this equation. Or is this the way it is shown to test takers?

  • KlP on August 29, 2011 4:17 PM:

    Was the sample algebra question formatted correctly on the test? As it's formatted here (with the exponent on the same line, not in superscript)- I got it wrong at first!

  • HokieAnnie on August 29, 2011 8:49 PM:

    Glad I'm not the only one who was left pondering the equation. It would be mean to have a test where the "right" answer is not the right answer!

  • Steven on August 29, 2011 10:14 PM:

    Took me a few tries as well. (a) is the only possibility as reading the equation in different manners doesn't yield and of the other available choices. I guess it's checking to see if you paid attention to the fact that y is a negative number.

  • Washington Monthly on August 30, 2011 5:31 PM:

    Our apologies. It was squared. We've fixed the formatting.

  • Zagrobelny on August 31, 2011 3:50 PM:

    I work for a community college and the students I see every day, even the ones who have passed our version of the Accuplacer, are woefully unprepared for college level work and are dragging down the quality of the education for everyone else. The solution isn't to do away with remedial courses, that will just make the regular courses even worse. Students here can easily circumvent remedial courses anyway with SAT scores or previous coursework. (I don't know why that school made Dekany take remedial work when she already had college credit - that's outrageous.) The solution is to make remedial courses that work instead of assigning them to green professors who want to be other things.

  • N. R. Epps on August 31, 2011 5:01 PM:

    Just completed a decade long stastical study of graduation rates at my community college; the students who complete their degrees the fastest are foreign students with visas, who took ESL (ie. Non credit English comp courses) classes when they first enrolled at the college. So they began in what's considered "remedial, pre-college." The student cohort who took the longest to graduate were native born , native English speakers who graduated from the city's school system. Non city residents who graduated from non city high schools were in the middle of the range.

    There are many, many things wrong with public (higher) education in this country, and poverty, lack of reliable child care, working while attending full time, and especially the lack of a genuine credible high school preparation are all part of the mix. the placement tests are bad, and an example of privatization , funneling public tax dollars into private pockets, when, of course, your proposed solution of good advisement, tutoring when needed, and a personalized evaluation is way too expensive for today's cash strapped institutions.

  • paul on September 01, 2011 9:17 AM:

    To what extent is something like this going to be driven by Parkinson's law? Without the remedial section in a college, you're going to have a smaller overall operation, with less money passing through.

  • Lois Leveen on September 01, 2011 11:46 AM:

    Some students arrive at college less prepared than others--that fact won't change. But what needs to change is how we serve all students. The returning student, who hasn't taken a math class in years, may score the same as the student whose English is so limited that she/he couldn't understand the test questions, and the student who is straight out of high school and has always felt overwhelmed in math classes. But each of these three students needs different supports to succeed. And currently, most placement procedures and coursework/student supports don't address the differences. Combine that with the fact that developmental courses are often taught by untenured/non-tenure track faculty, who often have no professional development to hone their skills for teaching these students, and even if they are marvelously motivated and insightful about teaching are least able to make significant changes in the departments and institutions where they work, and it seems none of it adds up to "the right answer" for millions of students. Or for any of us, really, since stagnating college graduation rates will be a major limitation on the US economy.

  • Lolly on September 01, 2011 11:53 AM:

    At the community college where I taught, the problem with the remedial courses was not so much with "green" professors as with the experienced professors who had an astoundingly condescending attitude towards the remedial students. Some of them treated remedial English students like kindergartners, with their grade based on whether they completed hundreds of sheets of sentence exercises and had them checked off by tutors.

    When I taught some of these classes, I had students who were repeated them for the 2nd or 3rd time who were clearly capable of doing work at the next level or beyond. To a person, they all said they had failed despite getting passing scores on their actual writing work because they hadn't gotten all their worksheets checked off.

    I can only imagine how many students gave up after going through that experience. My own philosophy on these classes was to pass students who were clearly ready to write at the next level. I tossed the worksheets entirely, even though they were supposedly a mandatory part of the class (shhh! don't tell anybody).

    So--treating these students like adults and focusing on getting them ready for more advanced classes would be a start on improving the situation.

    (hope this gets posted in the right place this time!)

  • Mary Forston on September 02, 2011 10:17 AM:

    What is the relevance of the equation in the article? How would someone use such an equation in every day life? Does such an equation really help anyone figure out how to feed millions or foster peace? Does knowing the answer mean you will be a thoughtful, genuine person with the ability to solve life's real problems?

    I remembered my order of operations but still came up with one of the other answers in the choices, of course I have not had to use such equations in my work life for the past 40 years. To assume that it was fairly easy to figure out is part of the problem with how we teach math and science. There is such a thing as math anxiety and labeling someone who doesn't see the relevance of an x or a y as "stupid" or "in need of remediation" is not helping. This attitude on the part of math enthusiasts and educators squelches enthusiasm for learning. I wonder how many politicians would come up with the right answer to the equation? Would it matter if they did?

  • Sothe on September 04, 2011 6:43 PM:

    So, in essence, you are blaming the schools instead of the applicants who failed to study at all before taking a placement test?

    If you're so lazy that you either didn't bother to study, or so lazy that you didn't bother researching enough to know that you SHOULD study, how is that the fault of the school?

    As an aside, I took an ACT test, without studying, a decade after high school and didn't have to take any remedial courses. Quit blaming the system and crying to Mother Government to come make it more "fair". Stand up, take responsibility for your own damn actions and DO SOMETHING FOR YOURSELF!

  • Jamie Wellik on September 05, 2011 12:17 PM:

    Too scattershot:

    The anecdote that underlies the article was a woman out of school for more than fifteen years before taking an assessment test. Plus, she took it at an institution which wouldn't honor some of her previous credits and "A" work ("outrageous" is an appropriate term cited by the first commenter.)

    I can accept that college admissions is a system that may be somewhat broken, but the premise that it is disabling students who are otherwise prepared for college work is hard to grasp.

    I didn't see any reference to the 2010 "Divided We Fail" study from California where the article starts. This study

    " tracked more than 250,000 degree-seeking California community college students over six years and found fewer than a third - 30 percent- had transferred to a four-year school or earned the vocational certificate or associate degree they expected."

    And BRAVO to Austin Peay University for treating students like individuals and requiring two hours a week of individualized tutoring and time in a learning lab. Granted, this is a four year institution, but their willingness to jettison standard practices and implement a hands-on solution is refreshing.

  • Rip on September 06, 2011 11:13 AM:

    I did well in math at school, but it's been 30 years. I'm sure the only reason I was able to get the answer was because I've spent many evenings the last two years helping my daughter with her algebra homework.

    What I find most objectionable is not that colleges ask potential students to take these tests, as I'm sure any are in need of remedial courses, but that they are not given an opportunity to prepare, especially as it may have been a matter of years since they had to answer such questions. It wasn't until I started helping my kids with homework that I realized how much I had forgotten.

  • Crissa on September 12, 2011 10:21 PM:

    These tests are timed, as well. Coming right out of two years of courses at university-level, I had to take one of these tests to get 'placed' at the community college I downgraded to (because of lack of funding) while my previous credits were in accreditation limbo (IE, the campus I went to wasn't directly listed so all my credits were in doubt.

    I've dreaded these tests ever since, and I've even tutored students in the remedial classes - hundreds of hours of longhand basic mathematics to get anywhere I care to be. And it's not as though these students don't know the coursework - though many of the instructors are so swamped, they never have time to explain or actually teach when they don't - but the ones who don't have near to no chance of completing these courses.

    Lastly, take a look at how many of these remedial courses are full or repeated dozens of times with filled schedules compared to simple Calc classes at the same college. How are students supposed to get through remedial courses which aren't designed to teach, but to obstruct? And this goes double for the many who actually need it.

    But I don't dare take those tests. They're horrible little monsters, always given only a few times a year, at strict and inconvenient times.

  • Steve on September 24, 2011 7:57 PM:

    As a "middle aged adult" I'm somewhat taken aback by the notion that many in my cohort would have trouble evaluating a simple mathematical expression such as the one given in the article above.

    This sort of innumeracy, if true, is probably part of the reason why so many of us are stuck with huge underwater mortgages and staggering credit card debt.

    We can't do simple arithmetic.

  • MFunkibut on October 11, 2011 5:39 PM:

    My wife teaches 'learning support' math at a community college that uses the COMPASS to score incoming students.

    She doesn't see alot of students who really should be in college algebra and have been 'misplaced' by the COMPASS.

    Instead she see students who cannot subtract reliably, do not know basic multiplication and are completely incapable of using fractions and percentages.

    Their learning simply stopped in the second grade or third grade.

    And very few have the skills [like fortitude] to do any better. Some do - but the percentage is small.

    And were we to combine the LASSI with the COMPASS and then to say "Sorry - you're too stupid and unmotivated to succeed in college so don't waste your money" the social fabric would unravel and there would be rioting in the streets.

    Instead, we decided to allow these "students" to waste a little money to figure out they can't do college.

    Because for a host of reasons - they can't.

  • apple on October 17, 2011 1:04 AM:

    In the early stages of a relationship with a guy 25 years my junior (I am 45, he is 20), when we met on cougar dating site **Couga*ra .( 0 m** I have to say that the comment about these guys unable to get with a girl their own age has to be way off. My man is very sexy, hot and popular and I¡¯m amazed that he wants to be with me¡­but also believe he does. My main concern is not other people but my
    family of 3 children age 10 to 17, do any others have stories of ¡°what the family thinks¡±?

  • Beth on October 18, 2011 7:54 PM:

    We use Accuplacer at our community college and we find it to be fairly unreliable. This semester I am teaching our lowest level developmental English course. I give them a diagnostic writing test on the second day of class. I discovered that about 5 or 6 out of 25 students clearly belonged in a much higher level English class. Another 4 or 5 probably belonged in an ESL class. So basically Accuplacer got just over half of the placements right. In what warped world is that good? I asked my students who clearly belonged in English 101 why they thought they scored so poorly on Accuplacer, and many said they didn't realize that the test counted for anything and didn't take it seriously. I think if the students come in actually prepared to take an exam, it might produce better results.

  • Jenny on October 20, 2011 9:03 AM:

    I think there are some students that can make it without the the DE courses. But without prior knowledge of the student and proper thorough advising session, it would not be successful. Also, there is too much control on the DE programs, where institutions cannot make these kind of decisions for these unique students. I would like to see the students that are referred to DE, make take an additional test that narrows down what the student's weaknesses are. That way the DE department at that college can decide if the student can be successful.

    As a DE Math instructor, articles like these, make it seem like we are purposely placing students in DE courses. When truly the 'good' DE instructors are the cheer leaders for the students to get them through successfully and quickly.

    Ironically enough, for the same thousands of students that got through and were successful, there are more thousands that were not successful in the DE because they were placed too high.

  • Milan Moravec on October 20, 2011 10:13 PM:

    University of California discrimination against Californians. Chancellor Robert J Birgeneau ($500,000 salary) displaces Californians qualified for public university education at Cal. for a $50,600 payment and a foreign passport. Need for transparency at UC Berkeley has never been so clear.

    UC Berkeley, ranked # 70 Forbes, is not increasing enrollment. Birgeneau accepts $50,600 FOREIGN students at the expense of qualified instate Californians.

    UC Regent Chairwoman Lansing and President Yudof agree to discriminate against Californians for foreigners. Birgeneau, Yudof, Lansing need to answer to Californians.

    Opinions make a difference; email UC Board of Regents marsha.kelman@ucop.edu

  • Jerry Shaw on October 24, 2011 1:21 AM:

    at the end of the day, it's the quality of education that matters..some of the richest men today even flunked school, although I am not promoting that..it would be best if credentials can be transferred for a student who wants to pursue some Allied Health Career.

  • Max on November 01, 2011 6:53 PM:

    What is most shocking is that over 70% of unprepared students can pass a regular college course. There is a bigger problem with the regular classes than the remedial classes (our college now calls these "college preparatory" classes).