Do High-Stakes Placement Exams Predict College Success?

Do High-Stakes Placement Exams Predict College Success?

Issue/Topic: Postsecondary Success--Developmental/Remediation
Author(s): Scott-Clayton, Judith
Publication: Community College Research Center
Published On: 2/15/2012

Community colleges are typically assumed to be nonselective, open-access institutions, yet access to college-level courses at such institutions is far from guaranteed. Instead, many students' first stop on campus will be to an assessment center where they will take exams in math, reading and/or writing. However, the remedial "treatment" that is assigned on the basis of these assessments is not obviously improving outcomes.

To analyze the predictive validity of one of the most commonly used assessments and to examine whether other measures of preparedness, such as high school background and prior college-preparatory units completed, might be equally or even more predictive of college success.


Using placement exams as a screen actually results in substantially lower accuracy rates than using nothing at all; for example, the number of qualified students who are prevented from accessing college-level courses with the exams outweighs the decrease in the number of unqualified students who are admitted into college-level courses.

Using high school background and test scores plus the number of years since high school and whether the student graduated from a local high school is the most accurate in determining placement, yet even this strategy comes far from eliminating severe placement mistakes.  

Policy Implications/Recommendations:

In both math and English, high school background measures may be more useful predictors of success in a wide range of settings because they capture both a wider range of cognitive skills than can be evaluated on a brief placement exam, and because they also incorporate non-cognitive factors such as student motivation.  However, 

Weighing the costs and benefits:

Even if an exam has high predictive validity, evaluations of the impact of remediation are ultimately needed to determine the overall validity of a placement testing system.

Research Design:

42,000 first time entrants to a Large Urban Community College System (LUCCS)

Year data is from:
Fall 2004 - Fall 2007


Data Collection and Analysis:
Analyzed data from 42,000 student assessments using standards statistical measures of predictive power, other decision-theoretical measures, including absolute and incremental placement and accuracy rates, and a new measure called the 'severe error rate.'

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