Does placement testing predict college course success?

Oct 20, 2011

Working primarily in the higher education world, I find this article from Washington Monthly to be quite an eye-opener about the current state of placement testing and developmental education in the community college world. Some interesting statistics are presented, much of which comes from the Community College Research Center. Yet, there isn't any explanation about how the information was gathered and the methodology used to arrive at some rather interesting and controversial results. I am predisposed to ask detailed questions about "what and how" so I can't help feeling a little skeptical. I want to investigate further to see for myself what the data might say. It's a bit like the accomplished musician who can't stand listening to someone else's performance because they over analyze it and pick out the faults.

Many of the clients we work with are asking the same kinds of questions proposed in the article. These questions are a logical extension of the research results. They want better insight into student behavior and achievement and what administrators can do to increase student success:

  • Are students who place in a developmental Math or English course taking that course? Do they succeed in that course and then succeed in the college level course?
  • Are students ignoring the developmental course requirement and do they succeed at any different rate than those who pass placement tests? (The article suggests students are quite good at self-selecting into the college level course and ignoring the test results!)
  • What are the characteristics of students who do not succeed at developmental or college level courses?
  • Are there specific courses or pathways that are more successful than others based on historical activity?

Of course, all of this really gets to the efficacy of the entire placement and developmental education system. Some states, with the help of research foundations, are attempting to address significant problems in misaligned curriculum between the developmental course and the college level course that should follow. Similarly, they are also applying new research in learning to redesign curriculum for greater real world application and effectiveness. The Developmental Education Initiative is one example.

Our job as BI consultants is to effectively understand the business questions and help institutions with the collection of useful data that can be presented in a way that informs the change process. We have several client engagements currently underway that are doing just that. I'll be able to see for myself from exposure to specific institutions what the state of developmental education success is for their students.