The College Puzzle Blog
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Dr. Michael W. Kirst

Michael W. Kirst is Professor Emeritus of Education and Business Administration at Stanford University since 1969.
Dr. Kirst received his Ph.D. in political economy and government from Harvard. Before joining the Stanford University faculty, Dr. Kirst held several positions with the federal government, including Staff Director of the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Manpower, Employment and Poverty. He was a former president of the California State Board of Education. His book From High School to College with Andrea Venezia was published by Jossey Bass in 2004.

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My blog discusses the important and complex subjects of college completion, college success, student risk factors (for failing), college readiness, and academic preparation. I will explore the pieces of the college puzzle that heavily influence, if not determine, college success rates.

College Readiness and the College Puzzle of Placement Exams

Using the 2001 Carnegie classifications, 80% of students go to Community Colleges, Baccalaureate colleges – General, Baccalaureate/Associates Colleges, Masters Colleges and Universities I and II. These are generally referred to broad-access schools, some of which may be included in Doctoral/Research Universities, Intensive and Baccalaureate Colleges, and Liberal Arts Colleges.

Broad-access colleges and universities have few admission requirements, but still require students to have solid academic skills to qualify for college-level classes—a fact that catches many first-year college students unaware. At broad-access colleges, students confront placement exams when they enter and those exams are the pathway to credit-level courses.

High school students know they will be admitted to broad-access colleges if they meet minimum GPA and course requirements or are over 18 years of age. Students aspiring to attend broad-access colleges receive weak and confusing signals about necessary academic preparation to pass placement exams. Consequently, they are not prepared for placement exams, and end up in remedial courses. More than half of first-semester community college students take remedial courses—mostly math and reading.

Research on the content, reliability, and necessary preparation for placement exams is scant. The content, cognitive demands, and psychometric quality of placement exams are a dark continent in terms of the research literature.

Moreover, placement standards are not well-publicized to prospective students or secondary school teachers. Students are admitted under one low standard, but then, based on placement exam scores, are often placed in remediation on another higher standard.

Secondary school students wrongly believe that their high school graduation requirements are sufficient to warrant placement in postsecondary credit-level work. These same students rarely know about the possibility of placement failure that leads to starting college in remedial, non-credit courses.

And then, unfortunately, students who begin in remedial reading and math courses have a lower probability of college success or finishing their desired academic program (including vocational education certificates). In sum, remediation is a poor pathway from high school to college, while being able to enter credit-level courses leads to higher rates of college completion.

Revision of college placement exams have not been part of the K-12 standards movement that has swept across the U.S. Indeed, placement exams are not part of the discussion because standards policies are made in separate K-12 and higher education orbits that rarely intersect.

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