Helping Academic Advisers Become Assessment and Placement Advocates for Their Students

Stephen J. Handel
The College Board

Volume: 12
Article first published online: November 17, 2010
DOI: 10.26209/MJ1261432


This paper summarizes the reflections of assessment and academic advising professionals from around the country who were convened to share their insights about helping underprepared students through the assessment and placement process. Among their recommendations was to involve academic advisers centrally in the assessment and placement process. This paper serves as a primer for advisers who wish to become assessment and placement advocates for their students.

Keywords: advising, academic advising, adviser, advisor

A student's first term in college is a time of extraordinary opportunity—for the student and the institution. Students who start well are far more likely to complete their educational goals. Many students, however, do not remain for more than a year in higher education. Roughly one-third of first-time college students entering four-year institutions do not return for a second year (McIntosh & Rouse, 2009; NCHEMS, 2008). At community colleges, student attrition is especially devastating, because as many as half of all incoming students do not return for their sophomore year (Kirst & Bracco, 2004). There are multiple non-academic reasons why students struggle in college, but the most important academic one is that many enter higher education unprepared to do college-level work.

The consequences for students entering higher education while lacking basic college-level skills are predictable. Many students have the potential to earn a college degree but simply cannot surmount the academic hurdles they face in the first term. Colleges and universities assist these students by offering developmental courses (sometimes called remedial) to shore up inadequate skills in such disciplines as English, writing, and mathematics. Although such interventions are well intentioned, they have not been completely successful. Most students placed in developmental courses leave after the first term, discouraged by the fact that they will be unable to enroll in college-level courses (Bailey, 2008).

How can colleges bolster the success of their most academically vulnerable students? In 2009, the College Board convened assessment and academic advising professionals from around the country to share their ideas and best practices about helping academically underprepared students through the assessment and placement process. Among their recommendations was to more centrally involve academic advisers in the assessment and placement process. Not only are these professionals especially well positioned to translate the implications of placement testing results to their students, involving advisers also presents them with an unmatched opportunity to help their advisees get off to a good start. This primer highlights suggestions to promote greater involvement of advisers in assessment and placement as a strategy to increase student success.

Assessment and Placement Basics

Although developmental education has been part of the higher education curriculum since the nineteenth century, these courses have become far more prevalent in the last thirty years, as the need for a better-educated workforce has become paramount and access to college has become more widely available in the United States (Kozeracki, 2002). With greater access has come wider variability in students' readiness for college-level work. Currently, one-third to one-half of all entering college students, and perhaps as many as 60 percent of entering community college students, must complete at least one developmental course (Department of Education, 1996, 2003; Kirst & Bracco, 2004). This commitment to developmental education is estimated to cost the nation nearly $2 billion per year (Saxon & Boylan, 2001; Strong American Schools, 2008). One of the main ways colleges and universities determine whether incoming, usually first-time, college students are ready for college-level instruction is by administering placement tests. Below are a few placement exam basics.

What is a placement examination?

There are placement exams for almost every academic discipline to measure whether students have the skills to tackle college-level work. The most prevalent tests, however, assess students' readiness in three disciplines that are the foundation for college academic success: English language skills, writing, and mathematics. English language assessments generally test students' reading comprehension and understanding of sentence structure. Colleges assess reading comprehension by providing students with a reading passage followed by a series of questions concerning that passage. Institutions measure students' understanding of sentence structure by presenting them with a series of sentences followed by questions that require them to substitute a word or phrase that will make the sentence grammatically correct.

To assess writing, students submit a writing sample in response to one or more prompts. For example, students might be asked to write a 300- to 600-word essay on a current social issue. English instructors score the essay using a predetermined eight- or twelve-point rubric, which measures students' ability to express, organize, and support a specific position. (Students whose first language is not English will complete a different set of examinations calibrated for second-language learners.)

Finally, most mathematics assessments measure students' knowledge of arithmetic, elementary algebra, and college mathematics (which may include such higher-level math topics as algebraic operations, coordinate geometry, functions, and trigonometry). Your institution may have specific guidelines for math assessments, including the use of calculators.

How are these exams administered?

Colleges and universities administer placement exams in two ways. Some tests are paper-and-pencil exams, requiring students to mark their answers on a computer-readable score sheet. Most campuses, however, deliver placement exams on a computer, generated from a software program loaded onto a local server or accessed over the Internet. The test may look very much like an electronic version of a paper-and-pencil exam, except students receive their scores immediately after completing the test.

Placement exams generally come in two forms. Some are called “linear tests,” because all students receive the same number and type of questions to assess a particular competency. In recent years, however, test-makers have developed “computer adaptive tests.” Unlike traditional tests, in which examinees use a single exam form, the computer tailors or “adapts” the exam to each examinee. This tailoring is done by keeping track of an examinee's performance on each test item and then using this information to select the next item to be administered. For example, if a student answers the first question incorrectly, the computer will then present the student with a less difficult question. Adapting the test for each student allows for a diagnosis of students' knowledge and skills using fewer items than are typically required in traditional paper-and-pencil tests.

What do placement test results mean?

After completing one or more placement exams, a student receives a numerical score for each individual exam. If the student's performance exceeds an institution's predetermined “cut score” (more about this in a minute), the student is ready to enroll in college-level courses. However, if the student scores below the cut score, he or she may be placed in one or more developmental courses.

English, English-as-a-Second-Language, and mathematics faculty usually determine the score that students need to “pass” a placement exam; that is, earn a score that demonstrates sufficient academic mastery to enroll in college-level courses. Assessment professionals call this threshold a “cut score.” Cut scores should represent the minimal competency a student needs to have a reasonable chance of earning a “C” or higher grade in a given course. Cut scores are typically validated on a regular basis by institutional researchers to assure that they accurately represent the minimal standard for student success in college-level courses. Think of it as the baseline skill level that every student must possess to be minimally prepared for college.

What happens to students after completing the placement exam?

Students scoring above the cutoff are ready to dive into the college curriculum. However, for students whose scores reveal academic weakness in one or more skill areas, several options are available. For example, students scoring near the cutoff may need only a short tutorial or enrollment in a “fast track” class to recover lost skills, rather than a semester-long course. Academic interventions for students scoring far below the cut score are more challenging than for those students scoring near the cutoff. These students may need to complete more than one developmental course before they are able to tackle college-level work. Moreover, until such time that their basic skills improve, these students may be restricted from enrolling in certain college-level courses.

Should students study for placement exams?

All students should become familiar with the purpose, process, and consequences of any test measuring their academic skills. At minimum, students should understand the format of the questions (multiple choice, free response) and whether the test is timed or untimed. Becoming familiar with a placement exam, however, is different from studying for one. For example, students who have not completed math in a year or more should do some “brush up” work to overcome rusty or out-of-use skills. Cramming, however, is unlikely to benefit students who performed poorly in or never completed any level of high school math.

Advising Challenges

Many students who take a placement exam pass easily and move directly into college-level courses. Unfortunately, many others do not. These students are sometimes shocked and a little embarrassed. They may not believe the results, find fault with the test, or complain about the way it was administered. Thus, the advising challenges that you face in addressing students' placement concerns are often complex. How you respond to them may significantly influence whether a student succeeds or fails in college (no pressure there). The following scenarios are designed to provide guidance in helping students through a difficult placement experience:

“I don't care what the test says; I am going to take whatever I want.”

Many high school graduates have little experience failing tests. Thus, scoring poorly on a placement exam is a rude awakening. In response, some students skip developmental courses and jump directly into college-level work. But the academic damage they do to themselves may be permanent. Your challenge is to throttle down the volume and become a quiet realist armed with data. Since one-third or more of all students in the United States need to complete at least one developmental course, performing poorly on a placement test is a more frequent occurrence than most students realize. Moreover, recent studies completed as part of the national Achieving the Dream Initiative (Topper, 2008) reveal that students who complete all of their prescribed developmental courses are more likely to persist to the second year of college compared to students who choose not to complete such courses. Students who completed recommended developmental course work also have higher GPAs and earned more college credit compared to students who did not complete such courses (Topper, 2008). While it may be difficult to convince dubious students that completing one or more developmental courses is in their academic best interests, these data are difficult to ignore.

“If I have to take a bunch of remedial courses, I may as well drop out.”

Many students become discouraged when told that they have to complete developmental courses. The disappointment is understandable. Not only does the test result reflect badly on their academic skills, it is also a blow to their self-esteem. Moreover, faced with the prospect of being unable to enroll in the college-level courses that interest them most, many students simply opt out of college altogether. To combat this, advisers recommend helping students develop an academic plan delineating a pathway to their goals. Since such a plan will likely reveal a longer road than they anticipated, it should be sufficiently “concrete,” showing regular milestones of achievement. Moreover, many institutions are experimenting with “learning communities” and “paired courses,” which provide students with opportunities to enroll in college-level offerings that are linked with developmental course work. These efforts allow students to strengthen their academic skills while participating in college-level courses.

“I am just terrible at taking tests.”

Many students who do not meet a college-level threshold on one or more placement exams may come from otherwise solid high school backgrounds. There is a clear mismatch between their educational credentials and their ability to demonstrate academic skills on a placement exam. Although often used as an easy justification for poor performance, some students do cramp up during a test, revealing almost nothing about the academic skills (and far too much about their anxiety level). Review the student's educational background. Is there evidence of good performance in the skill area that he or she failed? If so, perhaps retesting would be appropriate. If your institution has a strict retesting policy, you may need to intervene on behalf of your student.

“I was sick (distracted, tired, unconscious) when I took the test.”

Many variables can affect a students' test-taking performance. Of course, it is a student's responsibility to make the testing center aware of circumstances that might detract from his or her performance on the exam. Still, it hardly seems fair to place a student in a developmental course if the exam score does not reflect her true abilities. Consult with the testing center director on your campus if you believe your student's placement exam score does not reflect her genuine abilities (for example, if the student's score is significantly inconsistent with the grades received in high school). This is also an instance when retesting may be appropriate.

“I did not take the test seriously—I thought it would be a breeze.”

Testing center directors lament that many students would score higher on placement exams if they would only take the experience more seriously. To emphasize the importance of placement testing, some institutions require students to wait a week, a month, or even longer before they are allowed to take the test again. For students who were too casual about their first testing experience, waiting a while to take the exam again usually brings home the point all too clearly. Your role, of course, is not simply to stress the importance of placement testing, but emphasize to students that their educational progress is directly attributable to the time and attention they devote to their academic careers.

“I have to take a test? Thanks, but no thanks.”

Finally, some students avoid placement tests altogether. At many public institutions, assessment is not mandatory. This means that advisers can recommend, but not insist, that students take placement exams. Convincing a stubborn student to complete a test that he or she is not compelled to take will require you to employ every advising technique in your toolbox. To be fair, at some colleges students are asked to complete placement exams at inopportune times—at the beginning or end of an orientation program, for example. In what ways are new students informed about the need for completing placement exams? Do they receive sufficient notice so they can become familiar with the exams and how the scores will be used? Do they understand how these exams can influence the extent to which they will be able to achieve their academic and career goals?

The Adviser's Delicate Role

Helping underprepared students appreciate the academic gap that may exist between where they are now and where they want to be is the first step in getting them on a productive academic road. Academic advisers are equipped best to handle this delicate role, especially if they understand the assessment and placement process well. Helping your students develop an academic plan, while also being honest with them about the commitment they will need in order to fulfill it, will challenge your advising skills, yet there is no one better prepared to advocate on their behalf.


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Stephen J. Handel is the senior director of Community College Initiatives and Higher Education Relationship Development at the College Board in San Jose, CA. He can be reached at The author thanks the following advising and assessment professionals for their participation in this project and for reviewing earlier versions of this manuscript: Karen L. Archambault (NJ), Emily Canto (CN), Roberta Delgado (CA), Deborah L. Harmon (NC), Carol Kercheval (VA), Yesenia Madas (NJ), Michelle Overstreet (TX), Chantel Reynolds (OK), Margaret Scott (FL), Jonell Sanchez (NJ), and LeAnne Schmitt (MN). James Montoya and Ronald A. Williams also provided valuable suggestions.