New math placement methods aim to improve completion rates

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In 2015, the lucky number was 13.

As in barely 13 percent of freshman test into college-level math. The rest were consigned to the slippery slope of remedial math.

Most never claw their way out.

Placement exams have long been the great barrier between SWC students and dreams of AA degrees. California is pushing the college to broaden its thinking.

Academic Senate President Andrew Rempt said he agrees.

“The state government wants a system with multiple measures, which is more accurate,” he said. “Placement tests, by and large, tend to place students in remedial courses. This is especially true of math, where 90 percent of students test into remedial math. This adds a considerable amount of time to your college career here at Southwestern. The state legislature and the colleges themselves are concerned because it affects completion numbers. The longer it takes you to get out, the less likely you are to get out.”

Multiple Measures, a new strategy employed at Southwestern, seeks to see if more students can handle in higher level courses, even if the traditional assessment test says they cannot. Multiple Measures considers high school grades in relevant courses when placing students.

Kathy Tyner, Vice President of Academic Affairs, said multiple measures is worth a look.

“If someone is doing well in high school and their GPA is high enough, that’s already telling you a lot,” she said. “It’s telling you the student’s motivated, they’re organized, they can get the job done, because high school GPA is not just one course. So maybe this is a better way to assess students rather than a single test.”

SWC tested Multiple Measures on a sample of students who enrolled for classes in Fall 2016. Its new placement methods significantly increased the number of students placed into college-level math, English and reading courses. In the study, 281 (27.7 percent) students were placed into college-level math, more than double that of 2015.

Tyner said caution is warranted.

“If we can place (students) in a higher class we certainly want to do that, but we want to be reasonably assured we’re not setting them up for failure,” she said.

Failure did follow.

Students placed in college-level reading and English courses by Multiple Measures failed at a significantly higher rate than those placed by the standard placement method, according to data from the pilot study. A report by SWC’s Office of Research, Planning, and Grants recommended the adjustments. It recommended a high school GPA of at least 3.0 to be placed into college-level English, whereas the pilot study included students with a GPA 2.5 or greater.

Data from Multiple Measures showed that subject math passed at about the same rate as other students. Of 144 students placed by Multiple Measures, 64 passed and 80 failed, a pass rate of 44.4 percent. The study, however, acknowledged a small sample size.

Multiple Measures would not phase out assessment testing altogether, Tyner said. Students scored using Multiple Measures during the pilot study also took the assessment test and were placed into classes based on their highest score.

Dr. Michael Odu, dean of Math, Science and Engineering, said students who pass their math classes in high school are still testing into remedial math at SWC. He suggested allowing students to take placement exams in 11th grade.

“There’s a psychological element in assessment: the environment,” he said. “If we do assessment at 11th grade, those who do not do well (on the test) start remediation at the 12th grade. Those who do well (may) take classes at the college level.”

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