Improving Assessment and Placement at California’s Community Colleges

By Olga Rodríguez

Students in a computer-mediated math classroom

Every year, California’s community colleges identify hundreds of thousands of students as not ready for transfer-level courses in math and English. Since these courses are required to transfer to a four-year college, students deemed underprepared are placed in developmental (also known as remedial or basic-skills) courses to prepare for college work.

These placement decisions have profound effects: A sizeable portion of students in remedial courses never earn a degree or certificate or transfer to a four-year college. A study I conducted for the Public Policy Institute of California with Marisol Cuellar Mejia and Hans Johnson found that 80 percent of entering students take at least one developmental course in math, English, or both, and most of those students never complete a college-level math or English course.

Despite the critical role of assessment and placement, there is little clarity about how colleges across California assess and place students into math, English, and English as a Second Language (ESL) sequences. Prior studies conducted in California have relied on a small sample of community colleges and examined policies in place before 2010. To help fill this information gap, in spring 2016 we surveyed all 113 community colleges in the state, receiving responses from 82 of the colleges. They reported on the assessment and placement policies they used to place students into transfer-level math and English as well as the highest level of ESL during the 2014–15 academic year. The broad goal of the survey was to provide policymakers and practitioners with a descriptive landscape of the policies used across the state to assess and place students into math, English, and ESL courses prior to the implementation of reforms associated with the Common Assessment Initiative, which is developing a new shared assessment system for ESL, math, and English for California community colleges. I describe our findings below.

Colleges vary in how they identify college-ready students.

The use of assessment tests is widespread; 100 percent of colleges reported using assessment tests for math, English, and ESL placement. However, there is variation in the types of tests used and how they are used. More than half of colleges used the Accuplacer for placement into math and English courses. The Compass, which was taken off the market last November due to poor predictive validity, was the most commonly used assessment test for ESL (33 percent) and was used by more than 20 percent of colleges for math and English.

Importantly, even when colleges use the same test, they apply different rules for the minimum scores that qualify as college ready. For example, while more than half of colleges reported using the Accuplacer to assess college readiness in math, cut scores ranged from 25 to 96 out of 120. A student with a score of 58 (the median score used by colleges) would be deemed college ready at half of these colleges, but not at the other half.

This lack of consistency means that access to college-level courses is determined not only by students’ performance on the test but also by the policies at the college where they enroll. This wide variation may be especially challenging for the 40 percent of students who eventually enroll in more than one community college campus, as they could be deemed college ready at one college but referred to remediation at another. These policies end up undermining opportunities to transfer between campuses, and they provide mixed signals about what it means to be ready for college-level courses.

Furthermore, assessment and placement practices have implications for equity. Students of color are more likely to attend colleges that set higher math cutoff scores, which means these students have less access to the math courses they need to advance.

The use of multiple measures continues to be sparse and unsystematic.

In California, the use of other measures in addition to placement exams to place students into developmental education (known as multiple measures) is mandated by law. Research shows that measures such as high school achievement data do a comparable or better job at predicting college success. But while assessment tests were standard practice, there was substantial variation in the types of other measures used across colleges and across subjects.

The majority of colleges used additional criteria to determine placement into math (94 percent) and English (90 percent), but just over half did so for ESL (52 percent). Colleges used, on average, three measures to assess and place students into English and math courses, and two measures to assess and place students into ESL courses. Additional measures included high school grade point average, grades in prior English and math coursework, results from the Early Assessment Program, and counselor or instructor recommendations, among others. Overall, the use of high school records was more common for math and English than for ESL.

While some colleges used multiple measures in a systematic way for all students, up to 30 percent of colleges only used multiple measures if students requested it or challenged their placement. Uneven implementation of multiple measures may aggravate inequities if students with more cultural and social capital are more likely to take advantage of these policies.

Assessment and placement in ESL needs more attention.

Each year, about 30,000 students (6 percent of incoming community college students) enroll in ESL, and these students may be especially disadvantaged by current policies. Fewer colleges offered exemption opportunities in ESL than in English and math (28 percent offered none at all in ESL vs. 4–5 percent in English and math), and fewer offered test preparation activities (40 percent offered practice tests in ESL vs. 70–74 percent for English and math). Additionally, our findings suggest that a lower proportion of colleges used high school achievement data for ESL placement, indicating that English learners may not be benefitting from one of the most promising methods of improving placement accuracy.

Ongoing reforms aim to promote more consistent and accurate placement policies.

With the support of the governor, the legislature, and the system office, significant resources have been devoted to improving assessment and placement at community colleges. The Common Assessment Initiative, for example, will establish a shared assessment system. Our survey found that more than 80 percent of colleges reported having discussions about the Common Assessment Initiative for English and math; just under 80 percent of colleges did so for ESL. Still, colleges will have the autonomy to set their own rules for placement, and that’s a cause for concern if the inconsistencies described above continue.

The Multiple Measures Assessment Project (MMAP) is a collaborative effort led by Cal-PASS Plus and the RP Group to support colleges in implementing multiple measures in a more consistent and effective way. About half of colleges reported having discussions about multiple measures, and those that did frequently did so as part of their participation in the MMAP. Collaborative efforts such as this one can help ensure consistent placement policies across the state’s community colleges.

Closing thoughts

As colleges work to enhance the efficacy of developmental education, implementing evidence-based practices that accurately assess students’ college readiness will be critical. A more equitable and efficient system for assessment and placement is a vital step in helping all students achieve their academic goals.

Olga Rodríguez is a research fellow at the Public Policy Institute of California. This post is based on testimony given to the California State Senate Education Committee on April 19, 2017, on Senate Bill 319, which would require community colleges to inform incoming students about remediation policies and test preparation opportunities. Video of the testimony is available here, starting around 5:24.

For information on CAPR’s project on assessment and placement and its survey of U.S. colleges’ developmental education practices, visit our projects page.