New placement testing approach earns COCC award, saves students money

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Photo by Roman Russell

Seth Root/The Broadside

Central Oregon Community College’s humanities department has received top honors from the National Council of Teachers of English for their new approach to placing incoming students in English courses this year.

According to the announcement by the Two-Year College English Association, or TYCA, the council applauded the college’s “creative response to the challenges of educating two-year college students and for demonstrating professionalism in the commitment to educating diverse student populations.”

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Jane Denison Furness, a professor of English at COCC and the leader of this new approach, talked about why the college decided to change the way they placed students in English college courses.

“Traditional placement into community colleges consists of standardized testing, which is called placement tests, and until the last few years, it had either been Acuplacer or Compass,” said professor Furness. “But Compass went away, and Acuplacer, which measures reading comprehension, vocabulary, and math skills, in 2016 went to something different. However, even before Acuplacer went to their new version, we were not happy with these tests.”

According to professor Furness, the college was not happy with Acuplacer because it actively works against incoming COCC students.

“The traditional track was, you would take this Acuplacer test, and a lot of the time, the students that were not prepared for it because like a lot of these standardized tests, there was a lot of anxiety about the test,” said professor Furness. “So those things are working against them.”

Furness also said that these standardized tests have racist elements, which is another reason why the college scrapped Acuplacer.

“The test itself has a lot of issues with race and systemic racism,” said Furness. “For instance, Acuplacer would ask questions about Christmas or something. Well, that is lovely if you were raised in the U.S. and are a Christian and observe Christmas, but if you are a student not from the U.S originally and are not Christian, it is a terrible question to ask.”

Because of how these tests work against students, the community college decided to move away from Acuplacer and standardized testing generally and created a “self-directed placement” approach.

According to professor Furness, this new approach asks different kinds of questions than a regular standardized test.

“Multiple measures placement looks at a student’s high school GPA, looks at the last class they took in college that was a literature or English course, and asked questions like how they felt about writing,” said professor Furness.

Once students answered the “self-directed placement” questions, the new placement program would suggest to the student just what English classes the student should take.

Tony Russell, the humanities department chair at COCC, said that this new placement test has helped COCC students get to college-level courses a lot quicker than previously with Acuplacer.

“Since 2016, our English department has streamlined placement testing and developmental writing courses so that new COCC students get to college-level writing courses quicker than ever before, leading to improved student achievement,” said Russell.

Russell also said that this new placement test has also saved COCC students quite a bit of money.

“In two years, COCC students saved $87,000 in tuition and fees because they’re placed more accurately,” said Russell.

However, professor Furness points out that student success is not solely based on the placement test. Instead, it is just one of the many pieces that help contribute to student success.

“There is no magic. There is no one answer for fixing the problem in student persistence and trying to get students a better start,” said Furness. “But there are many things that we can do that make a difference. Placement is just one of them.”

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