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"Informed Self-Placement" At American River College:
A Case Study


Placement tests in mathematics and English Language Arts represent the de facto math and English standards at community colleges. Students take math and English placement tests when they arrive on campus to help them find courses that match their skill levels. The math tests assess students’ skills in pre-algebra, algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, and other subjects. In English, reading comprehension and vocabulary questions comprise the test. Placement tests help counselors and instructors determine which courses new students should take.

This research project, funded by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, complements a study supported by the James Irvine Foundation to determine the academic expectations in mathematics and English- Language Arts for recent high school graduates enrolling in the California community colleges. It investigates whether entrylevel community college academic standards are similar to those standards assessed in the 11th grade in California high schools. Then it recommends steps that California can take to align high school standards with community college standards.
The placement process at community colleges is critical for several reasons. Community colleges are open-access institutions that serve a heterogeneous student population. Students range from high school dropouts to high school graduates to adults returning to pursue a college degree. Students are not required to apply and some come without high school transcripts, so community colleges need a way to measure their abilities. Placement tests play the essential role of sorting these students into classes. For students, placement is a high stakes test that can impact their college outcomes. Students starting at the lowest developmental courses have the furthest to go to be ready for transfer to a four-year college or to earn an associate’s degree. Nearly 90% of students starting in a developmental course never pass a transfer-level course (“developmental” is used interchangeably with “non-transfer-level” and “remedial” in this analysis).

American River College (ARC) is one of a few colleges in California that has replaced the traditional placement model with an “informed selfplacement” in mathematics. Instead of placing students into courses based on test scores, self-placement is designed to match ARC math course content. Students select the level of math test that they believe best matches their skill levels and get results on the computer immediately following the test. Depending on the results, students may take additional easier or more difficult tests to determine their readiness for specific collegelevel courses. Counselors use placement test results to advise students which course is most appropriate. The examination of “informed self-placement” was supported by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation in order to better understand self-placement at ARC and how self-placement might be used as a signal to high school students of community college standards.


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