Political Animal


February 29, 2012 3:00 PM New Studies Suggest That Placement Tests Don’t Make the Grade

By Jesse Singal

Susan Headden had an important article in the September/October issue of the Monthly running down the problem with community colleges’ high-stakes placement tests, which often wrongly assign students to remedial courses, costing them some very valuable time and money.

A good example is what happened to Monica Dekany, who enrolled at Golden West College in Huntington Beach, California in 2009:

All she had to do, the registrars told her after she paid her fee, was go down a hallway, pick a cubicle, sidle up to a computer terminal, and take a short test. The “Accuplacer,” as the test is called, was no big deal, they said—nothing she could have studied for. It was just so they could see where she was. Dekany took one test in math and another in English, and was “floored,” as she put it, to learn that she had scored at a level that would consign her to remedial classes, reviews of fundamental material for which she would receive no college credit. “It caught me totally off guard,” Dekany says. The other colleges had let her enroll directly in college-level English and literature classes, and as her transcripts clearly showed, she had passed them. But Golden West told her the test results were all that mattered.
Dekany dutifully enrolled in, and paid for, the remedial—or what colleges euphemistically call “developmental”—courses. She knew everything in the English course already; her daughter’s seventh-grade English class was more advanced. Her math course was similarly low level, but it was taught by a sympathetic professor who helped save her from further remedial work. The college had mandated that Dekany take a second remedial math class before being allowed to take Math 100 for college credit, but her professor thought the requirement made no sense—she was clearly ready for college work. So he arranged for her to take Math 100 at Cal State, Long Beach, where he happened to also teach, and there she got an A.

Dekany ended up thriving despite the obstacles thrown up by the Accuplacer, but many students, already throwing their lives into a bit of chaos by fitting in school with everything else, do not. And now two new studies out of Columbia’s Community College Research Center buttress the notion that these tests flawed. One found that “placement exams are more predictive of success in math than in English, and more predictive of who is likely to do well in college-level coursework than of who is likely to fail,” and suggested “[u]tilizing multiple measures to make placement decisions” rather than solely relying on placement tests. The other found that “placement tests do not yield strong predictions of how students will perform in college,” and also that these tests lead to rather frequent placement blunders:

The authors also calculate accuracy rates and four validity metrics for placement tests. They find high “severe” error rates using the placement test cutoffs. The severe error rate for English is 27 to 33 percent; i.e., three out of every ten students is severely misassigned. For math, the severe error rates are lower but still nontrivial. Using high school GPA instead of placement tests reduces the severe error rates by half across both English and math.

In this context, three our of ten is a lot.

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.


  • Lucia on February 29, 2012 3:35 PM:

    "Three out of ten students is severely misassigned"?? I think the study authors is in need of a remedial English class themselves.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on February 29, 2012 4:04 PM:

    What a racket. These academic testing companies and higher ed folks know how to make a killing off students. First they were testing for giving college credit to high schoolers, but when students started placing out of college requirements they decide to test to disqualify students from receiving any college credit.

    At the college level, I don't think it's necessary to pre-identify students who may not be up to par academically. If prospective students' reading and math skills are that bad, they shouldn't be admitted--that's what primary and secondary education (and additional tutoring) is for. All others should be allowed to register for the standard courses, and if they don't bother getting extra help when needed, they should fail the course, fair and square. This isn't to say the remedial education/tutoring centers have absolutely no place in higher-ed, just that higher-ed shouldn't be trying turn a profit from it.

  • Christopher Hobe Morrison on February 29, 2012 4:16 PM:

    I started at SUNY New Paltz, NY without matriculating because I had been a high school drop out and gotten a state equivalency diploma. When I started I was given a writing test, and as a result of that test was put in a remedial course. On the first day of the class I was given another test, and as a result of that test I was taken out of the remedial class and put in an honours class. At SUNY New Paltz the remedial classes were taught by undergraduates who needed money or were connected to faculty or college functionaries.

  • schtick on February 29, 2012 4:23 PM:

    I have a friend that has had to take the same exact courses at every college she has attended (3) and they didn't care that she had taken them and passed with high scores, she didn't take "their" course. It's a racket.

  • Lucia on February 29, 2012 4:56 PM:

    If prospective students' reading and math skills are that bad, they shouldn't be admitted--that's what primary and secondary education (and additional tutoring) is for. All others should be allowed to register for the standard courses, and if they don't bother getting extra help when needed, they should fail the course, fair and square.

    I have to admit that the first thing through my head on reading this post was the story about the abortion clinic whose pregnancy tests always came back positive, including the one that finally busted them because it was from a man. Still, I think you're being both harsh and naive here. Community college may be the only resource left to people whose high schools have given them a diploma they can't read, and extra help may not be enough to fill the gap -- plus if you're working two menial jobs to pay for classes, when do you have time for extra help?

  • eli rabett on February 29, 2012 5:42 PM:

    Anyone taking a high stakes placement test MUST PREPARE for it. What's so hard about that.

  • Rick B on February 29, 2012 8:36 PM:

    Are the placement tests written and graded by the same idiots who give the tests that are just in No Child Left Behind to grade schools? My bet is that they are. And then the schools teach to the test.

  • tcinaz on February 29, 2012 9:00 PM:

    I taught high school English for 34 years. I came to understand formal testing for the scam it is. Needless to say, I had a far better handle on the probability of my student's potential for success that any(SAT, ACT)test had. Republican antipathy for teachers because of union related issues in Oregon where I spent my career explain the drive to test and disqualify that has emerged as the new standard. Time and teachers who are, after all, well qualified, despite what Republicans would have you believe, will verify this just as it has with other issues like say bail-outs, race, global warming, contraception, or any other hot button social issue. The right is driven by ideology often on the wrong side of history rather than objective analysis. Woe is us for that.

  • Nancy Cadet on February 29, 2012 9:20 PM:

    No surprise here. Privatization has led to increasing use/misuse of commercial tests. I've taught in an urban community college for 30 years, and I know the abuses, and have fought against them. The trend is to wrest authority away from professional educators and award it to commercial enterprises. So in my university the faculty, militant and unionized, are saying that they, not something outsourced or an appointed administrator , has the authority to confer degrees.

    Let's salute what's left of the union movement.

  • Sgt. Gym Bunny on March 01, 2012 12:13 PM:

    @ Lucia on February 29, 2012 4:56 PM: Perhaps you misinterpeted my comment to mean that I think that these colleges shouldn't let these students in the door. If community colleges want to offer remedial educational services to people who identify themselves as needing the extra help prior to starting a degree-seeking, for-credit program, that's great. What community colleges shouldn't be doing though is admitting these students as degree-seeking, and with the literal push of one or two buttons, require them to register and pay for classes that will not count towards there degree requirements. Were I ones of these last-chance low-wage students of limited means, I wouldn't be too thrilled to learn that I have to pay for and attend courses that will do absolutely nothing as far as fulfilling actual degree requirements. Now that is harsh.

    I don't know if you actually read the entire article, but the point of the article (as well as my comment) is that these placement tests are doing a lot more harm the good in that they may actually be placing more obstacles in the way of aspiring students--while making a pretty penny for the community colleges and testing companies.

    From the article:

    In 2010, ... 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... “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.”