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Why Do Students Perform Poorly on Placement Exams?

By Corey Murray

After years of poor Accuplacer scores slotting thousands of students into developmental math and English, officials at some Massachusetts community colleges are being encouraged to consider alternative measures of college readiness. The goal: to get more students enrolled in credit-bearing classes — and, if all goes right, improve completion rates across the state.

As pressure mounts to improve completion rates nationwide, community colleges know they have to reduce the number of students who test into developmental education. For most instructors, that means intervention. It means getting to students early and often and working to improve test scores so that students arrive on college campuses ready for the rigors of credit-bearing work.

But what if it isn’t that the students are struggling? What if the placement test is to blame? Is it possible that standard metrics simply don’t give a clear picture of what students are ready to accomplish?

These are just a few of the questions that the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education (BHE) has asked public-college educators to consider while weighing alternative measures of college readiness.

The move, which I first read about in the Telegram & Gazette, comes after years of disappointing Accuplacer test scores that have forced many students to play catch-up.

According to the newspaper, more than half of Massachusetts’ entering community college students who take Accuplacer exams begin their college careers in developmental math. That’s bad news for colleges. And it gets even worse when you consider that just 25 percent of students who place into developmental coursework go on to graduate — that last stat is courtesy of a recent task force report to the state’s Department of Higher Education.

So, what’s the alternative?

Across the state, community colleges are weighing their options. Late last year, the BHE voted to let colleges use GPAs as an alternative to Accuplacer scores. A second vote recommended that colleges do a better job of tailoring required math courses to students’ majors, the newspaper reported. Both initiatives are scheduled to roll out this fall.

“They’ve basically said look, the problem is so significant, the loss of students is so severe, we’ve gotta be willing to try something different,” Carlos E. Santiago, senior deputy commissioner for academic affairs at the Department of Higher Education, said in the Telegram article.

Mount Wachusett Community College plans to launch a new developmental math program that will require fewer algebra courses for nontechnical majors. The college is also working with a local high school to teach students developmental math prior to admission.

Quinsigamond Community College offers local high school students a special math program designed by community college instructors. Struggling students also have access to a special “boot camp” designed to get them up to speed.

Plenty of doubters

As with any experimental program, the state’s bid to upend its reliance on standardized tests has met with its share of opposition, particularly at the college and university level. In a letter to the state, members of the math department at Worcester State University questioned whether the emphasis on reducing the number of students in remedial coursework would create “pressure to lower academic standards in introductory mathematics classes.” Educators said lowering standards now would only lead to greater problems down the line.

What do you think? Should colleges consider using something other than standardized tests to determine whether students are ready for college-level work?

Corey Murray

is editor of the 21st-Century Center.

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