The majority of colleges in the United States use a single test to determine what courses incoming students are eligible to take. The placement tests decide whether students are ready for college-level coursework or if they first need to re-take the fundamentals to prepare. However, data has shown for several years now that these placement tests aren't necessarily good predictors of success in college courses. Additionally, improper placement into remedial courses reduces the likelihood of students sticking around long enough to graduate with a degree.
Now, researchers are coalescing around the need to rethink the placement process itself. Some are calling for statewide policy changes, others are pushing individual schools or systems to look at their own practices and improve upon them. Just this month, two major reports came out questioning placement tests by exploring the costs to institutions and students and probing the limitations of math placement exams specifically.
This week, Jobs for the Future joined the Charles A. Dana Center at the University of Texas at Austin and Achieving the Dream in sounding a call to action with six policy recommendations for improving math placement at colleges.
Nearly 70% of community college students are placed into remedial courses each year. Many of these students are from low-income and minority backgrounds, both of which are still highly underrepresented in science, technology, engineering, and math, or STEM, fields. The suggestions aim to improve college placement policies and processes and ensure student success in math and, by extension, STEM degrees.
“We can’t stress enough how high the stakes really are,” said Lara Couturier, director of postsecondary state policy at Jobs for the Future and a co-author of the brief, which argues that colleges must redefine placement to be a more comprehensive measure. The authors recommend colleges incorporate student goals and motivation into their placement decision and acknowledge the realistic math needs of various degree programs. Aspiring social scientists, for example, should be tested on their statistics knowledge, not their algebraic prowess. Yet, placement tests are almost universally skewed to measure how well students know algebra.
“The data is clear,” Couturier said. “The way that math placement is done right now hurts a lot of students.”
Jenna Cullinane, strategic policy lead for higher education at the Dana Center and the second author of the policy brief, said a key recommendation for colleges is to step up professional development with advisors and help them guide students through appropriate course sequences for their end goals. In many places the advisor-to-student ratio is too high to allow for proper guidance, but Cullinane said it is important to ask students in a placement conversation to narrow their focus at least to a broad sector of academia — liberal arts, social sciences, or STEM fields, for example.
While students often change their majors, Cullinane said research shows they generally do it within broad program groups.
“Typically you don’t see someone moving from political science to biological science,” Cullinane said. “STEM people are moving within STEM disciplines.”
That supports the argument for differentiated math pathways, meaning social scientists should be able to focus on statistics while STEM students are required to master algebra. Placement tests must evaluate the range of skills, however, not just the latter.
With an abundance of new research to guide decision-making on campuses, Couturier encourages administrators to pull stakeholders together from across their colleges and examine the research and their own student populations along with existing placement processes and procedures. With tight budgets, college leaders obviously have to make tough decisions about where to allocate funding. Single standardized tests are easy to administer and cheap to interpret, but they don’t seem to work for placement. That’s why Couturier argues placement reforms should be a top budget priority.
“We really believe this is a high-impact area that is worthy of investment,” Couturier said.
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