It’s Not About the Cut Score: Redesigning Placement Assessment Policy to Improve Student Success

This publication highlights the effect that assessment policies have on student placement rates in community colleges. 

Michael Lawrence Collins
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Achieving the Dream/Jobs for the Future
Publication Year
Resource Type
Informational Material
Number of Pages

This publication highlights the effect that assessment policies have on student placement rates in community colleges and details state placement assessment policy patterns for developmental education at enrollment; the usage of an approved placement exam (namely, COMPASS, ACCUPLACER, and ASSET); and the usage a standardized cut score or range for placement purposes. Additionally, this publication includes a rich appendix that gives an overview of placement assessment policies and development education policies in all Achieving the Dream states.

Benefits and Uses

This publication gives a detailed account of the experiences of three states, Virginia, Connecticut and North Carolina, in determining common placement scores for credit-bearing versus remedial courses. The states found that in undertaking this task they also needed to align their placement testing procedures, as well as begin to align their understanding of “college-ready” with the K-12 system and traditional four year universities. The policy brief makes several recommendations for policymakers in other states, including:

  • rigorously examining the impact of existing placement policies on student success
  • establish common standards for success in college-level work
  • communicate college entry standards to high school students and related audiences
  • enhance the capacity of data and performance measurement systems to track and analyze developmental education outcomes
  • build consensus in the “quality versus access” debate
  • developing a common understanding of what college readiness means.

Methods the resource used to collect and
analyze the data for the research:
A review of the data and literature collected on assessment policy and practices in the 15 states comprising the Achieving the Dream initiative, since 2005. Achieving the Dream states examine the impact of their developmental education polices on student outcomes.

What the experts say

This resource is of significant value to state education departments, the field of adult education and community college administration because it has potential to influence state education policy reforms, helps one understand what the trades off will be, and has implications for community college, adult education and developmental education programs. It is practical in that it provides a thorough assessment of the needs, challenges, implications on policy, benefits that include improved quality, reduced cost, K-20 alignments and collaboration, demonstrates potential for state-wide impact and improvement, can lead toward the development of seamless pathways, accelerated and contextualized learning, and to increase access and student success. Finally, the report concludes with a series of practical and applicable recommendations that don’t cost a thing, except to think differently about some of the current assessment and placement approaches in use, that are obviously not helping adult learners succeed and persist.

This study also helps one evaluate and consider one’s stance on the on-going debate among educators, regarding quality versus access and the responsibilities that come with the positions we take on this issue and on the issue of what it means to be “college ready”.

Adult educators will broaden their understanding of the issues relative to student placement from the Community College perspective. Practitioners unfamiliar with the cut score debate will get a good introduction to that topic. The information in the Appendix is especially helpful because it contains a lot of information.

Readers, especially adult education teachers and local staff, should be careful to not apply the statements/data in this paper to all their students. This article is only speaking to entry into college level courses leading to degree programs. Community Colleges also offer other certificate and continuing education program that fall outside the realm of the academic departments. Entry requirements into such programs may be quite different and no placement tests may be needed. In that sense, this article presents only a partial perspective of what Community Colleges offer that might benefit learners in adult education.

A significant limitation of this paper is that an entire state’s perspective on the process of establishing standardized placement procedures is gathered from an interview with just one person in that state. In two of the three cases, that person was from the State office, so it really fails to really capture the regional/local perspective.

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