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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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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 120 Number 2, 2018, p. 1-42
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 21987, Date Accessed: 11/29/2020 2:15:01 PM

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About the Author
  • Federick Ngo
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    FEDERICK NGO is a Ph.D. candidate in Urban Education Policy at the University of Southern California. He studies how mathematics affects access and opportunity in higher education, with particular attention to assessment and placement policies in community colleges. His most recent publications include “How Can Placement Policy Improve Math Remediation Outcomes? Evidence from Experimentation in Community Colleges” (with Tatiana Melguizo, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis) and “How Extending Time in Developmental Math Impacts Student Persistence and Success: Evidence from a Regression Discontinuity in Community Colleges” (with Holly Kosiewicz, The Review of Higher Education).
  • W. Edward Chi
    Rossier School of Education
    E-mail Author
    W. EDWARD CHI is an Urban Education Policy Ph.D. student in the Rossier School of Education at the University of Southern California. He studies programs and policies for underserved students in higher education. He is a former community college faculty member and holds an M.A. in Economics from the University of California, Irvine. His recent work with Mark Maier, "Community College Economics Instruction: Results from a National Science Foundation Project," was published in The Journal of Economic Education.
  • Elizabeth Park
    University of Southern California
    E-mail Author
    ELIZABETH PARK is a Ph.D. student in Urban Education Policy at the University of Southern California. Her current studies focus on two areas: success in four-year institutions for low-income students, and institutional policies and outcomes of English as a Second Language students at community colleges. Her recent work includes a monograph titled: “Assessment and Placement Policies and Practices in Developmental Education: Evidence from Experimentation in a Large Urban Community College District in California.” She also blogs for 21stcenturyscholar.org.
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