01/14/2014 04:31 pm ET | Updated Mar 16, 2014

Beyond the Test Score Myth

Kyle Cooper, Jewls Lagmna, Kristel Estoque and Faviolanny Rath are typical students at Long Beach City College (LBCC). They did pretty well in high school, they are one of the first in their families to go to college, they grew up in low to moderate-income households and they aspire to be someone. They are just like the millions of high school graduates that choose a community college somewhere in the nation. However, they are different in one important way - their high school grades were used to place them in college English and math. Throughout the nation millions of graduating high school seniors that choose to go to a community college are not given the benefit of using their high school experience as means for placing them in college level courses. Instead, they are required to take a standardized placement test that will dictate which English and math courses they can enroll in and possibly handcuff them to two to three semesters of remedial courses. This despite the fact that many national studies like the research by Judith Scott-Clayton and by Clive Belfield and Peter Crosta of the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Teachers College, Columbia University suggest that these tests alone do not provide enough information on how well a student will perform in college level courses.

Last year I posted an article, The Test Score Myth, which described the work being done by LBCC faculty and staff to change the way we place students. Our college identified a misalignment between high school preparation and college placement and that it was causing many students to be placed in unnecessary remedial courses. By placing students in these courses we were creating many more opportunities for students to halt their momentum toward a degree or transfer, disproportionately affecting students of color and costing the State of California millions of dollars in additional remedial courses that did not improve completion rates.

LBCC faculty and staff spent time combing through the data of over 7,000 Long Beach Unified (LBUSD) high school students who attended LBCC over a five-year period. What we learned was that far too many students were placed in remedial courses because the tests our college (and many colleges in the nation) used to place students were not predictive of success and excluded important information about the student's preparedness. In response, LBCC launched an initiative, the Promise Pathways. Incoming students from LBUSD like Kyle, Jewls, Kristel and Faviolanny were placed in math and English courses using a predictive placement model which relies upon multiple measures gathered from high school transcripts in lieu of standardized placement tests. These students were also given a prescriptive class schedule to ensure that they enrolled in key gateway courses within their first year. All this work was made possible because of the long and successful Long Beach College Promise partnership.

The initial cohort of freshman consisted of nearly 1,000 diverse students; the results they achieved are impressive. First time students in Promise Pathways were much more likely to successfully complete transfer-level English and math and to achieve key early milestones in their first year. Successful completion rates of transfer-level English in the first year jumped from 12 percent in the previous year to 41 percent. For transfer-level math, successful completion increased from 5 percent to 15 percent. In fact, these first-year rates of achievement exceeded the six-year achievement rates for first-time LBUSD students from the Fall 2006 cohort. Importantly, the success rates of Promise Pathways students closely matched the success rates of non-Promise Pathways students in those same transfer-level courses. Thus, Promise Pathways students achieved similar levels of success without the two to three semesters of remedial work that non-Promise Pathways students endured.

The results broken down by race and ethnicity are equally impressive with some of the largest achievement gains made by Latino and African American students. The attainment levels of under-represented students in the Promise Pathways outpaced those of white students in the previous year in just about every category (More detailed information and results can be found at: With California and the nation needing to do a better job of preparing Latinos and African Americans for the workforce, these results are promising because they demonstrate that many of students just like Kyle, Jewls, Kristel and Faviolanny can successfully complete key higher education milestones if given the opportunity.

Can the experience had by these students be extended to all? I am hopeful. In the meantime more work needs to be done. This year LBCC expanded the Promise Pathways cohort to more than 1,300 students from three different high school districts. English and math faculty continue to study the results and fine-tune the predictive placement models. Researchers are reviewing the data from other similar pilots and state policy makers are considering the ramifications. Organizations like the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) are incorporating these results into recommendations for all colleges (see the AACC 21st Century Commission on the Future of Community Colleges). One thing is clear, placing a student in a gateway college course using only a blunt instrument like a placement test needlessly impedes many students who already have the tools to succeed by putting them in remedial courses they do not need and that too often fail to improve student outcomes. I challenge all of our colleges to use standardized placement tests only as one tool in a multiple measure model that includes high school transcripts. Placing students in the right courses helps students succeed and saves taxpayers millions of dollars.