Why We Still Need the Common Assessment

Secretary, ASCCC Curriculum Chair
Area D Representative, CAI Advisory Committee Co-Chair

For the last six years, since the passage of AB 743 (Block, 2011), the California community colleges have been discussing the need for a common assessment test for students taking courses in mathematics, English, English as a Second Language (ESL), and reading. After many years of work by dedicated individuals, this common assessment was scheduled to become available in the Fall 2016. The timing of the release of the common assessment could not have been better because one of the mostly commonly used assessment tests, Compass, would no longer be available after November 30, 2016, leaving almost one third of the community colleges in California without the primary assessment instrument they had been using to place students for years. Unfortunately, when the Chancellor’s Office announced that the release of the common assessment would be delayed, the Compass colleges needed to identify alternative means of assessment.

Confronted with the need to place students into classes, many colleges were forced to find alternative placement tools that could be implemented quickly. Some colleges adopted different assessment tests, but many colleges turned to the use of high school transcript data that has been explored through the Multiple Measures Assessment Project (MMAP) over the last several years. Most MMAP colleges are using placement models that look at high school GPA, performance in specific high school courses, and the highest-level course taken in a particular subject in high school. Each of the placement models was built using actual student data, and many colleges have analyzed the models using local student data to ensure no negative impacts. As outcomes data has been collected on the MMAP models, many analysts claim that these approaches are at least as predictive, and in some cases more predictive, of course success as existing placement tools.

With the success of MMAP at many colleges, some individuals have wondered whether the common assessment is necessary. The years of hard work and money spent developing the common assessment may seem a waste if the use of high school transcript data for placement is actually more effective.  However, placing students into courses is not the only goal of assessment, and the common assessment is designed to do more than simply help colleges place students into the appropriate course.

The primary goal of AB 743 was to create a single test that would eliminate the need for students to retest if they moved between districts or even between colleges in the same district. When the Student Success Task Force Recommendations were adopted in 2011, the purpose of the common assessment was expanded. Recommendation 2.1 called on the community colleges to “develop and implement a common centralized assessment for English reading and writing, mathematics, and ESL that can provide diagnostic information to inform curriculum development and student placement.” The goal from the beginning of the Common Assessment Initiative (CAI) was to develop an assessment test that went beyond a single numerical score that placed students into classes and could help to diagnose specific areas in which students would benefit from extra instruction.

The common assessment will include two adaptive tests, one in English language arts and one in mathematics, to assist colleges with placement of students into courses. The test has been built from scratch by community college faculty, who developed the range of competencies, evaluated every test question that was written to be included in the test, and aligned each test question to those competencies. Every part of the new common test has been driven by faculty to meet the unique needs of students. College faculty may align local curriculum to the competency map to tailor the assessment test’s placement recommendations to the unique students and curriculum at each college. Despite students all taking the same test, colleges will still be able to offer curriculum that works best for their local needs and student populations. No assessment test is currently available to do what CAI is developing, and while the development has taken longer than planned, this test has the potential to provide better and clearer direction to colleges than previous assessment exams or projects such as MMAP.

The common assessment will produce reports for students, faculty, and colleges that will provide more information than has ever been available before. Students will receive a report that will indicate areas of strength and areas for possible improvement. Often students are not sure why they are being directed to one class versus another, but the student report will give students more insight into what skills they will need to improve in order to move into a higher course. Counselors will have access to additional details that can be shared with students to clearly explain why one course could be better for the student than another. Instead of looking at a single score that is matched against cut scores, the students and counselors can see actual skills that were being assessed and use those skills to make course placement decisions.

Every term, faculty meet a new group of students for the first time. Instructors may have had a few of their students in their classes before, but normally an instructor does not really know what the class’ strengths and weaknesses are at the beginning of the course. If a faculty member knew that a class was weak in certain areas, that could allow him or her to plan lessons and prepare for the course more effectively.  The goal of faculty is to give students the skills necessary to succeed.  Every instructor would focus on the skills students lacked if the faulty member knew in advance what those skills were. The common assessment will provide data to allow for and facilitate this process. At the beginning of each term, faculty will be provided with a report indicating each section’s strengths and areas for improvement. Experienced instructors often know where students struggle in their courses, but now instructors will have baseline information for their students so they can design classes and assignments that will contribute to making students more successful.

Over time, colleges will be able to analyze student performance to see why most students are placed into certain courses. If one or two skills tend to prevent students from being placed into a higher course, colleges can identify those skills and might potentially develop other ways of preparing students in those areas, including boot camps, skills modules, and other approaches that would allow students to acquire the skills in a more focused manner and move into higher courses more quickly. The ultimate hope for the common assessment is allow faculty and other college stakeholders to understand the needs of students and to potentially rework basic skills curriculum to help students transition into transfer level coursework as effectively and expeditiously as possible. While the common assessment will not require the redesign of basic skills curriculum, it will eventually provide faculty with information that could open the door to many ways of meeting the needs of students.

If this information is not enough to prove that the common assessment is still needed, other convincing arguments also exist.  For example, in some cases a student’s high school transcript data may not be not available. MMAP has been exploring the using of self-reported high school data, but for some students MMAP models may not work. Colleges often defer to existing assessment tests for these students, but current assessment tests do not provide the type of information that the common assessment will.  In addition, these tests are usually developed by test vendors with limited input from community college faculty. Even if a college is happy using MMAP, having the common assessment available will help the institution to assess all entering students quickly and efficiently.

Finally, while the MMAP data has yielded many positive results, questions on the use of this approach still remain at some colleges.  While the success rates of students placed through the use of high school transcripts appear to be comparable to those placed through the use of more conventional tools, and in some cases the results are even higher, simple monitoring of success based on grades may not tell the entire story.  Some faculty have noted that they have had to spend additional time in and out of class working with less prepared students in order to achieve these results.  The student who is placed in this manner and who might have received a lower placement through more standard methods may indeed succeed in passing the class, but the workload for faculty is increased and may become overwhelming if a significant number of such students are enrolled in a class section.  Furthermore, if the class must spend extra time on more basic concepts, the students who would normally have placed in the class and are prepared for more advanced work may see their instruction and progress slowed for the sake of the other students in the class. In short, the MMAP data hold promise, but this approach to placement still raises too many significant and unresolved issues to completely abandon other placement methods.

The common assessment could transform placement and basic skills curriculum in the community colleges, but that does not mean that MMAP is going away. The MMAP decision trees will be built into the common assessment platform, and colleges can still use them for placement of students. By including MMAP with the common assessment test, the chances of under placement will be reduced and the unique information produced by the common assessment test will be available as well. The goal of both projects is to ensure that students are placed into the highest course in which they are likely to succeed. These are not competing projects; they are complementary. Using MMAP in combination with the common assessment could be even better for students while providing important information about the students to faculty.

MMAP’s models give colleges insight into the types of students that they have coming into the college. The common assessment test will give colleges information about the skills those students have. Together, these tools will help to give colleges a more complete picture of the students entering their doors and should help colleges serve students better.