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Assessment and Placement at Community Colleges

Olga Rodriguez May 12, 2016

The assessment and placement process often represents the first point of contact between incoming students and community colleges. This process aims to evaluate students’ readiness for college-level English and math courses, and for those deemed underprepared, to determine appropriate placement into the remedial—also known as developmental—education sequence. Estimates suggest that 75%–80% of incoming community college students across the state enroll in developmental education in at least one subject.

Despite the prevalence of this process, little is known about how the state’s community colleges assess and place students into math and English courses. The last statewide survey on this topic, conducted over five years ago by WestEd, found that community colleges used placement tests extensively, but the cut-off scores for placement varied a great deal across campuses. Additionally, the survey showed that the use of other student achievement measures for placement was sparse and unsystematic.

Greater clarity regarding assessment and placement is crucial for two reasons. First, decisions made about a student’s readiness for college have significant implications for that student’s educational trajectory. In California’s community colleges, only 40% of underprepared students ever complete a degree or transfer, compared to 70% of their college-prepared peers. Research shows that developmental education may discourage students or “divert” their academic progress, as students spend considerable time and money on developmental courses, but these credits do not count toward a college degree or transfer.

Second, the possible overreliance on placement tests may be cause for concern. The Community College Research Center has found that the placement tests commonly used at colleges across the country are not strongly predictive of student success in college-level courses. In fact, these tests tended to under-place students, meaning students were placed into developmental courses when they could have passed college-level courses. This research also demonstrated that high school grades and other pre-existing student achievement data could do a comparable or better job at predicting success in college-level courses.

More comprehensive research in these areas would allow the state’s community colleges to identify assessment and placement reforms that help improve outcomes for all students. As a step forward in this effort, the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) is collecting survey data on the current assessment and placement policies and practices at California Community Colleges. These survey results will help pinpoint the different measures used to assess the math and English skills of incoming students and the ways in which these measures determine appropriate placement.

This research comes at an important time, since more change is underway. As part of the Common Assessment Initiative, over the next several years, community colleges will begin to use a common placement test, set locally determined cut-off scores, and enhance their use of multiple measures. PPIC’s survey will establish a benchmark of the assessment and placement process prior to the implementation of these statewide reforms.

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