The purpose of the research study by Brown and Niemi
was to determine the extent to which tests used for
placement by community colleges match the content
that California high school students are expected to
master—that is, the degree of content alignment between
the de facto standards needed for community college preparedness as measured by the
plethora of placement exams in use across the state and the standards
measured by California Standards Tests (CST) and the augmented CSTs used in California high schools.
The study was conducted in two phases. The first identifed the core content of community college placement objectives by analyzing the content of the sixteen most widely used community college placement examinations in English language arts and mathematics.
The second phase compared the results of phase one with the content addressed by the augmented CSTs in mathematics and English language arts developed by the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, and the California State University system (CSU). The augmented tests include questions designed to determine if high school students are ready to enroll in college-level courses at CSU. The analyses of content and the comparisons of the high school and community college exams were conducted by subject
matter experts from community college and university faculties with experience in high school assessments, or direct involvement in
teaching entry-level community college courses.
Placement Testing in the Community Colleges
Placement Testing in the Community Colleges
In 2005-06, more than one million students, ages 18 to 24, enrolled in for-credit courses in a community college
in California. Most were advised to take placement tests, but more than 40% of those directed to placement tests did not do so because placement testing is not mandatory (see Table 1).
California has adopted statewide assessments for high school students in math and English language arts, as noted above, but the traditions and history of the California Community Colleges system favors local attempts to solve problems, even when they are statewide. Several of the placement exams were given to more than 100,000 students each, while other tests were presented to only a handful of students. Some of the assessments were commercially developed, while others were locally designed. In addition, the tests vary substantially in the strength of their technical properties (that is, in the extent to which they measure what they purport to measure).
The most commonly used assessments are commercially developed, including the Accuplacer Computerized Placement Tests (CPT) by the College Board, and the Computer-Adaptive Placement Assessment and Support System (COMPASS) tests developed by American College Testing (ACT). These two programs account for more than half of all placement testing in the California community
colleges. Other tests in widespread use include: the Math Diagnostic Testing Program (MDTP), originally developed by faculty from the University of California (UC) and CSU; and the California Test for English Placement (CTEP), which was developed by California community college faculty.
What is tested, and what constitutes preparedness for courses in certificate and degree programs, varies substantially from college to college, even within the same community college district. For example, American River College in Sacramento has developed an "informed self-placement" program that provides information, including self-testing instruments, to help students assess their readiness for college-level academic work. (For more information about informed self-placement at American River College, see
www.highereducation.org/reports/arc/index.shtml.) But American River College's sister institutions in the Los Rios Community College District—Cosumnes River College, Folsom Lake College, and Sacramento City College—use other exams for student placement.
Students with limited English language skills face unique placement challenges. In many colleges these students take placement tests in English as a Second Language (ESL), rather than being tested in the regular placement-testing program. Those taking the ESL exam are placed in one of several remedial ESL courses. Many of these students do not return to the regular placement-testing program or enroll in credit-bearing courses.2
Student Assessment in California High Schools
California has established statewide standards in math and English language arts for high school. During their junior year, students take statewide exams to determine how well they are meeting these academic standards. Students who pass the optional augmented versions of these exams are exempted from taking remedial education courses at CSU.
There is one CST in English language arts, with an augmented version that includes a 45-minute writing section and 15 additional items to assess greater depth and complexity in critical reading and writing.
In mathematics, on the other hand, there is no single exam for all students. Students take a statewide end-of-course exam for the highest level of math they have completed. There are CSTs in Algebra 2 and summative mathematics3, and there are augmented versions of both exams that include additional items in Algebra 2 and geometry.
Students who have not reached Algebra 2 or summative math can take the statewide end-of-course test in Algebra 1, geometry, or other areas.
Unfortunately, many students do not reach the advanced course levels. In 2006, only about 6% of high school students took summative mathematics, and 12% took Algebra 2, the courses critical for college readiness. Most of the students tested took Algebra 1, geometry, or general mathematics.
Furthermore, the students who did take the advanced math exams did not perform very well. Less than half of those who took the summative mathematics test, and only 25% of those taking the Algebra 2 test, performed at the pro?cient level or higher.
2G. C. Bunch, "English Learners, Language Policy, and Transitions to Higher Education," progress report to UC ACCORD, August 2006.
3The summative mathematics exam includes questions related to Algebra 1 and 2, geometry, and probability and statistics.