Having trouble making the shift from the SAT and ACT to more “authentic”—and, some say, more meaningful—college placement tools? Read on for guidance on how you should be evaluating students and how to overhaul your district’s role in the college placement process.
K-12 and higher ed leaders know it’s been a tough few years for the SAT and the ACT as more colleges and universities went test-optional to level the playing field for students coping with the turmoil of the pandemic. With standardized tests losing their luster, enthusiasm continues to build for replacing the one-time exams with multiple “authentic assessments” such as research projects, presentations and portfolios of other high school work. It’s a big change that will improve the accuracy of college placement and boost students’ chances of earning degrees, says a new report, “Making the Connection,” from Complete College America.
“This competency-based approach is a shift that focuses on deeper engagement with the material, student empowerment and choice in the learning process, and critical thinking skills,” says Brandon Protas, author of the analysis and strategy director of Complete College America. “This is exactly what colleges and employers look for in students and employees.”
The report adds to the growing chorus of voices asserting that students who show evidence of deeper learning than just a test score have more success in college. Proponents of alternative assessments have long argued that students who score poorly on the SAT or ACT are sometimes incorrectly placed in remedial and introductory courses that are not credit-bearing. This discrepancy has disproportionately impacted students from historically underserved backgrounds who have fewer resources to prepare for standardized exams, the analysis says.
Reviewing a broader range of “tangible” high school work enables college admissions teams to better measure how well a student can transfer their learning to higher ed and the real world. Projects, papers and presentations should still be evaluated based on specific criteria but students should be able to revise their work until they meet established standards, the report recommends.
“Such assessments empower students to own their own learning through reflection, feedback, and revision,” the report says. “They also function as learning tools themselves, helping students develop the ability to apply knowledge to complex problems and improve co-cognitive skills such as collaboration, communication, perseverance, and growth mindset.”
High school grade point average, guided self-placement, and high school transcripts will also help colleges place first-year students in the correct courses. These “whole student” types of performance assessments are key features of accelerated programs such as the International Baccalaureate and the new Advanced Placement Capstone diploma program.
The following conditions are critical to making this more holistic college placement approach work:
- High schools and colleges must work much more collaboratively to align K–12 performance assessments with the measures colleges use to determine postsecondary readiness.
- Students’ passions, interests, and experiences should drive the work that is being assessed and then inform the courses and career pathways colleges place them in.
- Assessments should become an “iterative” process that allows students to demonstrate multiple dimensions of learning and broader sets of competencies than are revealed by standardized tests.
- Colleges should use assessments to close gaps in course access, improve advising, and support students’ semester-by-semester progress.
- Performance assessment results should be provided in ways that are easy to understand.
- Prioritize performance assessment training and support for teachers, administrators, admissions professionals, high school counselors, college faculty, college advisers, and other personnel.
“From an equity perspective, standardized test scores correlate closely with both racial and economic privilege,” Protas says. “The fact that there is a whole industry built around test prep, which itself reinforces privilege to those who can afford this service, is indicative of the problem.”
Testing companies can pivot to more student-centered approaches by redeploying their vast technological infrastructure to help high schools and colleges share performance assessments. “It is up to colleges to determine what information they want about students to make an informed decision regarding potential students,” Protas says. “If this is what colleges value, they will have to look beyond standardized tests for that information.”