Millions of Americans are denied the chance to take college-level courses by a downscale version of the SAT.
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.
Feed the Political AnimalDonate
Washington Monthly depends on donations from readers like you.