Amelia Herring

Three Recent Trends in Course Placement Testing

Three Recent Trends in Course Placement Testing
Amelia Herring
The course placement evaluation process is the opportunity to explore ideal spots for different students- not settling for the next closest alternative.

As many of my fellow educators are all too aware, course placement has often been a tumultuous point of tension.

Due to some significant changes by one of the major course placement test providers, a large number of colleges have suddenly found themselves on the hunt for a new solution – which is a process that brings with it a host of challenges and rewards.

A silver lining of pursuing a new course placement solution is that schools have the opportunity to reevaluate their options and find a test that better meets the needs of their students.  What many schools are discovering in this evaluation process is the opportunity to really explore what the ideal course placement consists of, not simply settling for the next closest alternative to their old test.

The Holistic Perspective: Measuring cognitive and non-cognitive factors

The core of course placement rests in measuring the acquired knowledge, skills, and abilities of students. However, there has been a surge of research in recent years on the value of measuring non-cognitive factors such as motivation, perseverance, and study skills when entering students sit for a course placement test. In addition, schools have also begun measuring general cognitive ability.

What’s the value of including cognitive and non-cognitive measures?

  • Cognitive ability is THE greatest predictor of academic success, retention, and completion, and is also correlated with other important factors such as loan default rates.
  • Assessing non-cognitive factors allows institutions more flexibility in the placement process. For example: high cognitive ability and/or strong non-cognitive factors can often compensate for borderline academic skills.
  • Non-cognitive factors can be remediated through holistic advising and student services.

The Value of Diagnostics: Developing personalized academic advising and student services

The best course placement tests are those that include robust diagnostic reporting for students, staff, faculty, and administrators. It is unfortunate that so many schools only look to course placement test reports for a cut-score and then file the report away, never to see the light of day again. And this is often not the fault of the school, but the test provider that does not offer a diagnostic reporting feature or offers the feature at such a high price that it’s prohibitive. In their search for a new course placement solution, schools should seek assessments that provide cut scores and diagnostics for a competitive price.

What’s the value of diagnostic reporting?

  • Academic Advisors and Student Services Advisors can triage incoming students based on their academic strengths and weaknesses, as well as need for support services. Skills-challenged students can be identified for more intensive academic advising structures.
  • Instructors benefit from having a “brain scan” of their students and can begin conducting needs analysis before they set foot into the classroom. Day one of the course is much richer, and instructors can have information to develop instructional interventions or to employ differentiated instructional techniques.

The Custom Approach: Developing custom test items that “back-in” to your curriculum

I recently spoke with a faculty leader from the state of Washington who was searching for a new course placement solution. She mentioned that the ideal course placement test “backs-in” to a school’s curriculum and drops students off at the precise point where their level of ability and course-level learning objectives are aligned. One way to ensure this ideal fit is to develop your own custom course placement test, utilizing the input from faculty, course syllabi, and program outlines as a guide for test item creation. Unfortunately, this process requires such a large amount of resources that schools feel the process, as desirable as it may be, is too daunting to take on.

Luckily, there are some test content publishers out there that have implemented cost structures that involve matching the amount a school spends on development with an equal amount of value in test units. This matching cost structure makes it possible for schools to afford their own custom solution and provides support to faculty in order to ease the burden of writing hundreds of test items.

A Community of Practice

 Are you aware of any other recent trends in course placement? Or does your institution have a course placement solution that you feel others may benefit from? If so, share your knowledge with your colleagues at conferences, on social media, and through publication, so that we may form a community of practice devoted to helping our students succeed through effective course placement practices. For those of you looking to engage in dialog with other like-minded educators, please start a discussion in the comments section below!

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