Motivated in part by the concern that students were graduating from high school without the skills necessary to succeed in college-level coursework, a growing number of colleges and universities began requiring students to retest basic skills in mathematics and English language arts through the administration of standardized, computer-adaptive course placement exams. These exams are typically administered after enrollment and prior to course selection.
Though many factors are likely at play, research suggests that these course placement exams contribute to high rates of enrollment in developmental education. One particularly compelling study found that students with low placement scores who enroll in developmental courses ultimately go on to pass credit-bearing courses at a rate of 27 percent, vs. students with similar scores who were able to opt into credit-bearing courses, who pass the same courses at a rate of 72 percent. This and other studies have been used to suggest that course placement examinations are not acting as an accurate predictor of who will or will not succeed when placed into credit-bearing courses.
Course Placement Exams
As of 2011, fully 100 percent of community colleges and 85 percent of public 4-year institutions reported using a placement exam like Accuplacer or COMPASS to determine students’ readiness for credit-bearing math courses.
Developed by the College Board, Accuplacer assesses mathematics, reading and writing skills to determine students’ readiness for credit-bearing postsecondary coursework. It is a computer-adaptive assessment, meaning that the test questions shown change based on how students demonstrate understanding on previous questions.
Developed by ACT, Inc. and discontinued beginning in the 2016-17 school year, COMPASS assesses mathematics, reading, and writing skills to determine students’ readiness for credit-bearing postsecondary coursework. It is a computer-adaptive assessment, meaning that test questions shown change based on how students demonstrate understanding on previous questions. In regards to their decision to discontinue the assessment, ACT says “A thorough analysis of customer feedback, empirical evidence and postsecondary trends led us to conclude that ACT Compass is not contributing as effectively to student placement and success as it had in the past.”
Developed by UC Irvine and recently acquired by McGraw-Hill Education, Assessment and Learning in Knowledge Spaces (ALEKS) is a mathematics assessments and tutoring system, one component of which is used for mathematics course placement by colleges and universities.