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Improving College Placement Policies

Assessment and placement policies govern where students begin their college trajectory. This is a high-stakes issue for students, affecting how quickly they achieve their educational goals. Too often, it affects their likelihood of reaching these goals at all. Students who are placed in developmental, or remedial, courses end up spending significant portions of their limited financial aid packages—and sometimes take on debt—to pay for courses that don’t usually count toward a degree.

Findings from a PPIC survey on assessment and placement policies show that California’s community colleges vary in how they identify college-ready students. First, colleges use different assessment tests. Second, even those that use the same test apply different cut-off scores, which are the minimum scores that a student must get to be designated college ready. While over half of colleges reported using the Accuplacer test to assess college readiness in math, cut-off scores ranged from 25 to 96 out of 120. Students with the median score of 58 would be deemed college ready at only half of these colleges, while at the other half, they would be placed into developmental math. This lack of consistency means that access to transfer-level courses is determined not only by students’ performance on the test, but also by placement policies at the institution where they enroll.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy fix to this problem, as opposing forces are at play. On one hand, the current approach of setting local assessment and placement policies allows for considerable academic freedom and institutional autonomy, giving colleges flexibility to respond to the local needs of the population they serve. This is particularly important for placement into developmental coursework, the structure of which varies significantly across colleges. On the other hand, locally determined cut-off scores into transfer-level courses lead to inconsistent standards and can send a confusing message to high schools around the state about what it means to be college ready.

Accordingly, placement into transfer-level courses should be uniform across the community college system. Having clearer and more uniform policies for accessing introductory transfer-level courses (e.g., college composition, college math, and statistics, among others) is critical because these courses are considered equal in the eyes of four-year institutions accepting them for transfer. Variation in the standards used to access these courses dilutes this presumed equality.

California State University (CSU) presents a compelling case study for a statewide system that has consistent assessment and placement policies for determining college readiness. Across the 23 universities in the CSU system, a common assessment and common cut-off scores are used for placement into transfer-level math and English. Yet individual campuses maintain flexibility regarding how they structure developmental education sequences and placement into these courses.

Systemwide assessment and placement policies at California’s community colleges could yield multiple benefits:

  • Eliminating barriers for students who transfer from one college to another. Clear and uniform policies for accessing transfer-level courses would begin to make students’ assessment results more portable across colleges, especially those in the same region.
  • Improving programs and support for students in developmental education. Currently, the lack of comparable data across colleges has prevented the system from measuring the effectiveness of interventions designed to increase student success in developmental education.
  • Sending a clear message to high schools about college readiness standards at community colleges. This would be akin to the uniform policy used by high schools and colleges across the state to determine college readiness as part of the Early Assessment Program (EAP).

Continuing to let community colleges determine placement into developmental education while standardizing placement policies into transfer-level courses will preserve local autonomy and help to bring about the benefits that come with systemwide uniformity.

Learn more

Read the report Determining College Readiness in California’s Community Colleges: A Survey of Assessment and Placement Policies
Visit the PPIC Higher Education Center

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