Math Placement Tests Deserve More Scrutiny

Note: This post originally appeared as a commentary in EdSource.

Mathematics plays a central role in winnowing opportunities for students to enter and succeed in college. In California, students can graduate from high school with just two years of math, including a single college-preparatory course, Algebra 1. But if they don't also complete Geometry and Algebra 2 (or, with the introduction of the Common Core state standards, an integrated pattern of courses covering the same material), students aren't eligible to attend either of the state's public university systems.

Last month, Governor Jerry Brown took an important step toward insuring more students the chance to take those courses: He signed a bill, SB-359, requiring school districts to adopt "fair, objective, and transparent" policies for determining how to place students into math courses when they start high school. The new policy means that students can't arbitrarily be directed off the college math-ready track. This is good news for ensuring that more students, including more under-represented minorities, acquire the foundational math skills they need before college.

But bad news awaits too many students at the college gateway. That's because taking the right courses in high school doesn't guarantee access to college-level math courses at the state's colleges and universities. To varying degrees, all three higher education systems in California use placement tests to determine whether students are ready for required college-level math courses. Those who aren't -- including up to 85 percent of community college students and 33 percent of students at California State University -- must take one or more remedial courses.

The problem is that the placement tests used by most campuses have limited efficacy for placing students. Research in California and nationally demonstrates that, using traditional placement tests, up to a quarter of community college students are under-placed, required to take remedial math courses even though they could have succeeded in a college-level course. While the tests were originally intended to ensure students were prepared for college-level courses, new evidence demonstrates that remedial math courses don't improve students' outcomes in college, and may even worsen them. The majority of community college students assigned to remedial math courses never make it to college-level courses, not because they fail, but because they exit the remedial sequence.

In writing my recent report, Degrees of Freedom: Probing Placement Policies at California Colleges and Universities, I interviewed several students who felt that remedial math placements deterred their progress in college. A student at Berkeley City College told me she had passed Pre-Calculus in her senior year of high school, but a math test score required her to repeat three courses: Pre-Algebra, Elementary Algebra and Intermediate Algebra. Another, at City College of San Francisco, was assigned to take four remedial courses, starting with Arithmetic, even though she had taken Trigonometry in high school.

Each year, tens of thousands of students like them may be prevented from taking required math courses that they could likely pass. They are tripped up by placement tests, even though research repeatedly shows that high school records are more accurate predictors of students' college performance.

The problem may be that standardized tests in general disadvantage some students. A recent study on the SAT indicates that race and ethnicity are the single largest determinant of California students' scores on that test. It also found that false negatives (test scores that under-rate a student's actual abilities) were most likely to affect under-represented minority students. It is easy to imagine that a similar pattern prevails for commonly used college placement tests, since those tests were developed by the same companies that produce the SAT and ACT. That concern is exacerbated by the knowledge that black and Latino community college students are more likely to under-estimate their own math abilities, as described in a paper by researchers at USC. That tendency decreases the chances that students will challenge a low placement.

Earlier this year, ACT admitted the limited predictive validity of its Compass placement test, and decided to discard it. Recently, CSU system officials acknowledged that a 2010 study by ETS doesn't satisfy questions about the validity of the system's math placement test. They have called for a new analysis that may help ensure that students aren't sent to remedial math courses unnecessarily.

Fortunately, the state's higher education systems have begun to develop ways to mitigate the problem of inaccurate placement, even in the absence of legislation:

With state funding, a group of community colleges are piloting new "multiple measures" algorithms for placement that incorporates students' high school records. The initiative builds on the work of Long Beach City College, which managed to triple the proportion of students placing into college-level math courses without a drop in students' success in math. Dozens of colleges around the state are jumping on board, even though the pilot isn't finished. For most, the biggest challenge is getting students' high school transcript data in a timely fashion in order to place them in the right course in college.

California State University has supported the development of high school senior-year math courses for students who are predicted to need remedial math in college. Early results from courses being offered in the Sacramento area and Los Angeles suggest this approach has promise. Success in such courses allows students to waive placement testing at CSU or even earn college math credit.

These efforts represent good initial steps. But they need to be refined and expanded to ensure that math placement policies don't derail students' chances to succeed once they go to college. Math placement policies deserve far more scrutiny, given their outsized impact on students' college and career trajectories.