Don’t Let a Bad College Placement Exam Derail Your Studies
The tests are error prone, often sorting students into too-easy classes
Here’s a problem that you probably didn’t know you needed to worry about: college placement exams.
They’re administered to millions of incoming college students annually, but there are problems. “They don’t predict performance well, and they are not reliable,” says Peter Bergman, associate professor of economics and education at Columbia University’s Teachers College.
While this may seem unimportant in the scheme of world events, it’s a bonfire of students’ efforts and morale and potential dollars. The exams consistently misroute students to inappropriate-level classes, typically toward too-easy courses.
Families end up paying for unnecessary remedial coursework that is mostly non-credit, straining education budgets, and wasting a semester of a student’s time. One study found a 30% severe error rate in English course placements; another study of 42,000 students on a common community college exam showed about 15% of students in unnecessary severe misplacements — which is 6,300 misplaced students slogging through an unneeded semester.
Community colleges affected
Though Ivy Leaguers can be just as stymied by bad placement exams, community college students pay a much higher price. Placement tests are more commonly used at community colleges, which serve many students from disadvantaged backgrounds. These students are more likely to struggle with math, reading and writing skills, and also to have not previously taken tests that would indicate their academic abilities, such as SATs, ACTs, advanced placement exams (APs), SAT subject tests or state tests like regents exams.
Educational institutions are well-intentioned. They’ve developed remedial classes, along with other student-assistance programs, to properly prepare students to succeed. “Colleges don’t want to enroll students in college coursework only to see them fail,” Bergman says. Failing grades can lead to a downward spiral of discouragement, lost aid, wasted money and dropping out — which is terrible for students and colleges alike.
Bergman and two colleagues have come up with a temporary solution: an algorithm that crunches more data about each student to appropriately track them. The algorithm employs data like high school GPA, class rank, placement exam scores and time since high school graduation, to spit out a number indicating how likely that student is to succeed in a college course (from 0% to 100%).
The college can then decide to enroll, say, all students with over a 70% chance of passing in Introductory Writing Composition. In a test drive of the algorithm with 12,544 students at seven community colleges in New York, the algorithm improved placement accuracy across schools and demographics, shifting 20% of math placements and 40% of English placements. With the new placements, crucially, pass rates for the classes remained the same. The researchers hope to expand use of their algorithm.
How to prepare for a placement test
If you know a placement test is in your near future, Bergman suggests that you prepare for at least an hour or two, so that you are not surprised by what’s on the test. Call the college and ask which tests are used, and then go to the test website to see what’s on the test. Then study and practice. For example, the ALEKS math placement test asks increasingly difficult questions, and wrong answers on early questions can result in no questions appearing about, say, Algebra 2.
If you find yourself on the receiving end of a poor placement grade, some expert advice:
Take the test again. Yes, really. “A student could take the test twice and get very different scores each time,” Bergman says.
Talk to advisors. First explain what happened. For example, you might say, “I’m actually really good at Algebra 2 — I just haven’t been in school in five years, and blew some of the easier math questions.” Then show proof of competence, such as high school grades or test scores. If you don’t have proof, be creative. For example, you might borrow a math textbook, and flip through it with the professor, explaining what you know.
Realize that your future is not a black cloud. As we’ve just explored at length, placement exams are not reliable indicators of college performance. So if you bomb one, don’t get discouraged.
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