A Call to Action on Math Placement Policies

By Sonya Stinson

Multiple organizations are questioning existing practices and are leading a movement to rethink developmental education and improve student outcomes.

In recent weeks, at least six major education organizations have urged rethinking developmental education and adopting a more holistic approach to college placement.

A recent report, A Call to Action to Improve Math Placement Policies and Processes, released jointly by Jobs for the Future, The Charles A. Dana Center at The University of Texas at Austin, and Achieving the Dream, focuses on math placement. Spotlighting the need to ensure that low-income students and students of color are not shut out of STEM career opportunities because of outdated placement policies, the report offers six recommendations:

  • Begin the placement support process early.
  • End the reliance on a single test for placement.
  • Redesign placement tests to align them with differentiated math pathways and make them better predictors of student success.
  • Integrate advising and other student support into the placement process.
  • Make sure the process puts students on the right track for their academic and career goals.
  • Create a bridge between non-algebra and algebra math pathways.

This report follows a study by the Community College Research Center and a joint report from LearningWorks and Policy Analysis for California Education that also suggest the need to reform placement policy and developmental education.

“The history of developmental education is that it was designed to be helpful to students,” says Lara Couturier of Jobs for the Future and co-author of A Call to Action. “It was designed with the best of intentions, with the idea that people who are not college-ready should be given extra support to make sure that they become college-ready before we throw them into college-level classes.”

Despite those good intentions, research shows that most students in developmental education never move on to take the college-level courses that will put them on a path toward graduating and accomplishing their career goals.

“A very small percentage of students who start developmental education meet with success over the long term,” Couturier says. “What we are now discovering, too, is that we need to look at the way we place students to begin with.”

Couturier and co-author Jenna Cullinane, strategic policy head for higher education initiatives at the Dana Center, say that using only one type of assessment to determine placement puts many students at a disadvantage.

“If you rely only on an assessment of certain skills on a particular day,” Cullinane says, “you are not getting a full picture of what the student can do.”

Instead, say Couturier and Cullinane, colleges need to consider high school transcripts, work experience and students’ own goals in deciding what level of coursework to place them in. Couturier notes that a number of colleges have integrated a mandatory advising session into their orientation processes that includes a discussion of career aspirations.

For underprepared students, there are opportunities for intervention and support before they enroll in a community college.

“We’ve seen interesting policy and practice work around prep courses in the high school years,” Cullinane says. “We’ve seen summer boot camps and training programs that can serve as a refresher for students who may have been away from academic classrooms and academic life for a while.”

Couturier cites the North Carolina Community College System as a notable example of the shift to a more holistic approach to placement. Any incoming student with a high school GPA of 2.6 or higher is exempt from placement tests and is enrolled in college-level courses. Supplemental instruction and other types of support are provided in accordance with each student’s particular needs.

“It hasn’t been going on long enough for there to be a rigorous evaluation done,” Couturier says of the North Carolina experiment, “but the self-reported data is very positive about them meeting with better results.”

Sonya Stinson

is a contributor to the 21st-Century Center.

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