Tuesday, July 28, 2015


Multifactor Placement for Adults

How should a college determine whether an adult needs developmental coursework?

For years, most community colleges used a single placement exam and a set of “cut scores” for nearly everybody.  (You could avoid them if you had AP credit, high SAT’s, or transfer credits in math, but most students didn’t.)  An entering student would be directed to the testing center, where she would take tests cold in both math and English.  (English was often divided into reading and writing, but the point still stands.)  In states in which high school students were required to take four years of math, a new grad was probably still fairly fluent in what she knew.  

Of course, many states don’t require four years of math in high school, so even new high school grads can show up with some serious rust on their algebra skills.  But that’s another issue.

Even when memories of high school math are relatively fresh, though, recent research has shown pretty strongly that a single high-stakes exam is a poor predictor.  That makes sense, if you think about it.  On any given day, a student could be sleep-deprived, nervous, sick, or distracted.  And performance on a single test doesn’t indicate tenacity, which isn’t evenly distributed.  A high school GPA indicates performance over several years, and offers some insight into tenacity.  A consistent record of good academic performance in high school isn’t a perfect indicator, but it’s the best one we’ve found.  

But common sense -- and more practical issues -- suggest that a high school GPA is a better indicator when it’s a year old than when it’s ten years old.  So using high school GPA as part of a “multi-factor placement” system is fine for traditional-age students, but not so great for adults.

If high school GPA isn’t a good or practical indicator, though, what should we use?

For most returning adults, SAT’s are not a serious option.  Many colleges use some version of a one or two week “boot camp” for test preparation, to remind students of what they knew in the past and to help them shake off some rust before the placement test.  That’s a good idea, as far as it goes, but it’s still basically fine-tuning the single high-stakes test.  

To be fair, issues of placement apply to English as well as to math.  With English, in some ways, the boot camp approach is even less promising.  Solving the sides of a 30-60-90 triangle is easy enough once you remember it, but writing well typically requires more than a quick refresher.  

So, wise and worldly readers, I’m hoping some of you have found reasonably elegant solutions to this one.  Other than the high-stakes placement test, are there specific practical, fair, and effective ways to assess entering adult students?

Minor point: it's a 30-60-90 triangle, not 30-69-90. Unless you are drilling students in non-Euclidean geometry, in which case I think your placement tests probably have other issues.
If your state has a high school exit exam, I would accept that in lieu of the high stakes local test. If they passed it once, they can probably get by or relearn what they need to know.
Could you give them the placement test and give them results that said something like "You've currently placed into class X. We've detected weaknesses in areas A, B, and C that are keeping you out of higher-level math classes. If you would like, you can study on your own online with modules A, B, and C and re-take the placement test at Y time to see if you can place into a higher course."

Ideally, let them iterate through this as many times as they want to, since it would presumably give them the next list of weaknesses keeping the out of the next class as they mastered the previous set, at least until they place into a majors-track credit-bearing math class. That'd give them a chance to both shake off the dust and show tenacity.
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