Starting Gate: Placement Tests Help Students Find Their Niche.
by Kathleen Kennedy Manzo
During freshman orientation at Millersville University of Pennsylvania, incoming students are given a battery of tests in math and English prior to registering for classes. The routine process allows faculty and administrators to determine which students should first take developmental courses to overcome academic deficiencies.
For many public colleges and universities, being a point of access to higher education for a diverse student population presents tough challenges for placing students in courses appropriate to their academic ability.
Many institutions, therefore, rely on a variety of tests to determine which classes they should take. Experts agree that when a strong placement program is used, students may have a greater chance of surviving the difficult first semester, when adjusting to college life can be critical to succeeding.
"I think the advisors and faculty feel the exams are very effective," said Millersville admissions director Darrell C. Davis. "The exam recognizes the students' ability to perform and evaluates what they've done over a four-year period in high school. I think knowing what the student's needs and abilities are up front is very important for placing them in courses. The tests are invaluable."
Many institutions develop their own tests to ensure that they reflect the curricula and meet their specific needs. But the expansion of placement programs since the mid-1980s has offered a growth area for testing companies, which have developed standardized computer software packages and testing programs for aiding the process.
At Colorado's Aims Community College, a placement program installed in the mid-1970s in response to faculty concerns has boosted completion rates by more than 25 percent. It has also reduced the number of students changing courses after classes have begun or switching to other disciplines, according to Ruth Slomer, Aims' director of developmental and remedial education.
American College Testing (ACT) and the Educational Testing Service (ETS) both have developed standardized exams for colleges and universities.
"People are finding there is a greater need to place people in the right courses," said Dr. Kelley Hayden, director of corporate communications for ACT. "The locally developed tests are dependent upon the expertise in that locale . . . and this could vary a great deal. People who are experts in subject matter are not necessarily experts in testing. What you have here is testing experts putting together subject matter in cooperation with experts in the field."
The call for increased accountability and more quantitative measures of students' achievement have led to an increase in the use of such tests, according to Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest). With the number of students taking college entrance exams holding steady in recent years, placement testing offers another avenue for testing companies, he said.
James Bruno, a professor at the Graduate School of Education at the University of California, Los Angeles, said that while standardized tests may work to place some students in the right classes, restricting students to right or wrong answers (thereby encouraging guessing) can be problematic for some test takers. There is more of a tendency for students scoring near the cutoff to be placed inappropriately.
"The idea of a good placement program is to do a workup on the student's actual knowledge with a test that allows the student to answer a question partially, but also allows feedback to that the so that student gets better," Bruno said. "In reality the [standardized] placement test is pretty good for [students] at the high end and those at the low end, but at the middle range you tend to get" inaccurate results.
This could result in some students who barely pass an exam getting into a program they are not suited for. …