Mathematics Course Placement Using Holistic Measures: Possibilities for Community College Students
by Federick Ngo, W. Edward Chi & Elizabeth So Yun Park — 2018
Background/Context: Most community colleges across the country use a placement test to determine students’ readiness for college-level coursework, yet these tests are admittedly imperfect instruments. Researchers have documented significant problems stemming from overreliance on placement testing, including placement error and misdiagnosis of remediation needs. They have also described significant consequences of misplacement, which can hinder the educational progression and attainment of community college students.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: We explore possibilities for placing community college students in mathematics courses using a holistic approach that considers measures beyond placement test scores. This includes academic background measures, such as high school GPA and math courses taken, and indicators of noncognitive constructs, such as motivation, time use, and social support.
Setting: The study draws upon administrative data from a large urban community college district in California that serves over 100,000 students each semester. The data enable us to link students’ placement testing results, survey data, background information, and transcript records.
Research Design: We first use the supplemental survey data gathered during routine placement testing to conduct predictive exercises that identify severe placement errors under existing placement practices. We then move beyond prediction and evaluate student outcomes in two colleges where noncognitive indicators were directly factored into placement algorithms.
Findings/Results: Using high school background information and noncognitive indicators to predict success reveals as many as one quarter of students may be misassigned to their math courses by status quo practices. In our subsequent analysis we find that students placed under a holistic approach that considered noncognitive indicators in addition to placement test scores performed no differently from higher scoring peers in the same course.
Conclusions/Recommendations: The findings suggest a holistic approach to mathematics course placement may improve placement accuracy and provide access to higher level mathematics courses for community college students without compromising their likelihood of success.
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