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A JFYNetWorks White Paper

44 School Street Suite 1010 Boston, MA 02108 617-338-0815

College Placement Standards Are they changing? Is Accuplacer on the way out?

by Gary Kaplan, Executive Director

March 2014

Contents Topic


Introduction: Measuring the Measurements


The GPA Exemption


MCAS Proficiency




The PARCC Exemption


PARCC Timing


Achievement Gaps


Administrative Capacity


Conclusion: Accuplacer Stays


Measure for Measure


JFYNetWorks Organizational Profile


Introduction: Measuring the Measurements College placement standards and protocols are under review all over the country. In Massachusetts, the use of Accuplacer as the statewide college placement test that determines assignment to credit or noncredit courses is being re-examined. One proposal would substitute PARCC for Accuplacer. A second would substitute certain levels of high school grade point average for Accuplacer. Some observers view these changes as the phasing out of Accuplacer. But a careful analysis of both proposals leads to a different conclusion-that Accuplacer will remain in use for the foreseeable future. The GPA Exemption Math is the bellwether: more than three times as many students test into developmental math as into English. The Massachusetts Department of Higher Education has adopted a plan to substitute certain GPA levels for the math Accuplacer. This plan,1 a revision of the 1998 Common Assessment Policy which established Accuplacer as the statewide placement test, is scheduled to go into effect in the fall of 2015. It sets new criteria for placement in math courses only; there are no recommended changes to the current procedures for placement in developmental English courses through Accuplacer. The new DHE plan exempts two groups of recent high school graduates (within three years) from Accuplacer testing for college math placement: those with a GPA of 2.70 or higher, and those with a GPA between 2.40 and 2.70 who have successfully passed four math courses including one in their senior year. All others—high school graduates with a GPA below 2.4 or between


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2.4 and 2.7 but without four years of math, and anyone without a high school transcript or with one older than three years—will still be required to take the Accuplacer for math as well as English placement.

A total of 2140 sophomores took the math MCAS in these 20 schools. 48%-- or 1020 students-- scored below Proficient. This metric suggests a substantial number of students whose GPA could fall below the required level for Accuplacer exemption.

This change will exempt some students from Accuplacer testing in math. It is difficult to calculate precisely the number of students whose grade point averages are above 2.7, or who fall between 2.4 and 2.7 and have passed four math courses. However, it is possible to make estimates based on two known metrics: MCAS Proficiency rates, and percent completing the MassCore requirement of four years of math.

More important, since GPA is an inexact metric the basis of which can vary widely from classroom to classroom, it suggests a functional skill level below college standards for approximately half of the students in non-exam high schools regardless of GPA. This estimate is consistent with the reported 60% of Boston Public School graduates who currently test into remedial courses at community colleges.3

48% score below Proficient MCAS Proficiency Proficiency on MCAS could be taken as a predictor of a GPA above 2.7. The 2013 threshold score for the Proficient performance level in 10th grade math was 29 of the 60 raw points—48%. A score below that level in 10th grade can be a predictor of low subsequent academic performance. For example, in Boston, the state’s largest district with an annual graduating class of 3000, the rates of sub-Proficient math performance for the 20 non-exam public high schools with reported MCAS data ranged from 15% to 67% with a median of 51%.2


The overall rate of developmental placement for Boston graduates in all Massachusetts public colleges and universities is 35%.3 This rate understates the developmental exposure of non-exam school graduates because it includes the three exam schools. Only 1% of exam school sophomores – 11 out of 909—scored below Proficient in math. Aggregate rates that include these three schools do not present an accurate picture of the twenty non-exam schools where almost half the students scored below Proficient. The eight other urban districts in Massachusetts with enrollments over 10,000 had sub-Proficient math rates ranging from 32% to 56% with a median of 40.5% -twice the overall statewide rate of 20%. MassCore The second exemption, for GPAs between 2.4 and 2.7, is contingent upon successful completion of four years of math. This is the MassCore recommendation, and the percent of students who meet this standard is documented. In the 20 non-exam Boston high schools, the percent of students who

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completed MassCore ranged from 0 to 61.8 with a median of 20.7. In the nine urban districts with more than 10,000 enrollment, the range was 3.6 to 100 with a median of 26.1. This suggests that there will not be significant numbers of students who can take advantage of the 2.4 – 2.7 plus four years math exemption. The PARCC Exemption The PARCC proposal designates Performance Level 4 of the 5 PARCC levels as a College- and Career-Ready Determination (CCRD). On the current PARCC timetable, this CCRD could be available no earlier than the fall of 2016, after PARCC is fully implemented and the scoring rubric established. Latest indications are that the date may move to 2017. Students who score below Level 4 would not be exempt from taking college placement tests. The MCAS Proficiency analysis above casts some light on the likely number of students who will reach Performance Level 4 on PARCC. It is unlikely that PARCC Level 4 will signify a lower skill level than MCAS Proficiency. Since PARCC will be an 11th grade test, not 10th grade as is MCAS, and presumably normed at a higher skill level, it may represent a significantly higher standard than MCAS. Therefore, projections based on MCAS Proficiency can be applied to the PARCC exemption as well, with the expectation that fewer students will reach Level 4 than currently achieve MCAS Proficiency.


PARCC Timing There is one more consideration concerning the timing of PARCC: it has not been adopted formally by Massachusetts. The current schedule calls for a decision by the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education in the fall of 2015, after the full implementation and the setting of performance levels, whether to sunset MCAS and employ PARCC as the new state testing program. If the PARCC implementation schedule is delayed, the decision would also have to be delayed. The timing could affect the adoption of PARCC for college placement. By the time the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education votes on adopting PARCC to replace MCAS, there will be a new administration in Massachusetts and possibly in Washington. This could lead to further delay.

Persistent Achievement Gaps

Achievement Gaps Achievement gaps remain a stubborn problem. 86% of white and 89% of Asian 10th graders scored Proficient or higher in math. Only 59% of African American and 57% of Hispanic students reached that level. These gaps have narrowed by only four percentage points in the last five years. The persistence of these achievement gaps suggests that the already disproportionate representation of African American and Hispanic students in developmental courses will grow more disproportionate. Administrative Capacity In addition to these substantive concerns, there is a significant logistical issue. Very few community colleges require applicants to submit high school transcripts. Simple proof of graduation is sufficient. The submission, collection and examination of a

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new piece of documentation from thousands of applicants would require an administrative capacity that neither high schools nor community colleges have.

foreseeable future will still be Accuplacer.

Conclusion: Accuplacer Stays In summary, it does not seem likely that Accuplacer will be displaced from its gateway position in the next several years. On the contrary, the new Department of Higher Education plan explicitly reinforces its use outside the specific math exemptions. The possible substitution of PARCC Level 4 for Accuplacer will have to await the full implementation of PARCC. It will not be feasible until the fall of 2016 or 2017 at the earliest. Both the PARCC and GPA exemptions will affect relatively high-performing students and leave lower-performing students still subject to whatever form of college placement test the state requires. Since DHE has retained Accuplacer for English placement and for math placement outside the exemptions, it is likely that the fallback under the PARCC exemption will also be Accuplacer.

Measure for Measure Whatever the final outcome, Accuplacer, PARCC, MCAS and GPA are only measuring tools. It’s what they measure that really matters: the skills of our students. And however we measure them, those skills are not equal to the demands of college or career. As Commissioner Chester pointed out in September when he released the record high 2013 MCAS scores, 40% of Massachusetts public high school graduates who enter public higher education are still not capable of doing college-level academic work. The developmental math sequence they enter begins with whole numbers, decimals, fractions, ratios and proportions. That’s a skill gap that must be filled, and it isn’t a recent development. The rates of remedial course assignment have barely changed in the past two decades. Whatever instrument we use to measure these gaps, the real question remains: how are we going to close them?

Accuplacer has been used by Massachusetts public colleges to identify students who need remedial attention since 1998. It is used for that purpose in all six New England states and many other states. Until another assessment method is proved better, it would seem prudent to continue to use Accuplacer. This is in fact the plan DHE has put forward. Except for defined exemptions, the college placement test in Massachusetts for lowerperforming students for the


40% not ready for College or Career

Receipt of the l Report from the Commissioner’s Task Force on Transforming Developmental Math Education, (MA) Board of Higher Education, October, 2013. 1


All school data from the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education website. 3

Getting Closer to the Finish Line, The Boston Foundation, 2013

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Organizational Profile JFYNetWorks is a non-profit provider of blended learning programs to high schools, community agencies and community colleges. The organization was founded in 1976 under the name Jobs For Youth to help high school dropouts find jobs. During the 1980s JFY developed a competency-based instructional system that led to a GED program and an alternative high school. In the 1990s, JFY developed pioneering skill training programs in biotechnology, entrepreneurship, health care, financial services and environmental technology. In 2000, JFY applied its competency-based educational techniques to MCAS preparation and introduced the use of digital content. This early blended learning program, later expanded to Accuplacer, was called JFYNet. In 2003 the agency changed its name to JFYNetWorks. Throughout its 35 year history of education and training innovation, JFYNetWorks has applied its expertise and resources in the most effective ways possible to address the root causes of disenfranchisement, underemployment and poverty.


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