Dr. Tatiana Melguizo Studies Developmental Math in Community Colleges

October 14, 2013

by Tatiana Melguizo

Tatiana Melguizo

Dr. Tatiana Melguizo

Towards a More Nuanced Understanding of Assessment and Placement Policies and Practices in Developmental Math in Community Colleges: A Collaborative Effort to Produce Translational Research Relevant to our Local Community

In California, over 80 percent of high school students are placed in developmental math when they enter a community college. This is a distressing figure and two questions immediately come to mind: 1) How are community colleges in Los Angeles assessing and placing students? and 2) Are students being placed in the courses where they are more likely to succeed and fulfill their respective educational goals? These questions motivated Professor Melguizo to assemble a team of experts to tackle these important questions and gain a deeper understanding of a complex problem.

Interdisciplinary team and attention to mentoring junior scholars
Professor Melguizo and her team received internal (Advancing Scholarship in the Humanities and Social Sciences) and extramural funding (Department of Education) to explore these questions. The team was composed of a national expert in policy evaluation (Dr. Hans Bos, Vice President American Institutes for Research (AIR)), a researcher from the LACCD with almost three decades of expertise in community colleges (Dr George Prather), graduate students from Rossier School of Education (Holly Kosiewicz, Kristen Fong, and Federick Ngo), graduate students from the economics department (Bo Kim and Will Kwon), and a number of undergraduate students funded through an internal grant by the Undergraduate Research Associates (URAP) program.

Integration of local expertise into the research process
The team also benefitted from the expertise of faculty members and administrators at different community colleges in the district that were invited at least once a year, to provide feedback on the preliminary results of the study.

Translational research
In order to translate the results of our research to the practitioner and policy makers, the team worked with a public relations expert to create four policy briefs focusing on key findings of the project.

Effort to increase access and impact of results
To increase the impact of our project and make sure that the faculty and administrators of the colleges had access to all the products of the grant, the team created a webpage that includes all of the documents that were produced as part of the grant. Download these documents.

What did we find?
Description of the assessment and placement (A&P) policies: We found that colleges use different placement instruments to assess students (i.e., ACCUPLACER, COMPASS and MDTP), don’t employ a standard procedure to set and validate cutoff-points, and rely on a student’s cognitive rather than non-cognitive abilities to award multiple measure points. There are consequences associated with this such as the fact that one student with the same score on one test might be placed differently by two different colleges. Findings suggest that designing effective assessment and placement policies for developmental math is a complex endeavor for community colleges. To adequately assign students to appropriate math courses, local faculty must know the strengths and weaknesses of available placement tests, have adequate tools to set cutoff points, and understand how alternative cognitive and non-cognitive measures that predict success impact student placement.

Impact of Placement Decisions on Student Success. We conducted a rigorous evaluation to identify whether colleges were setting the cutoffs of the placement exams correctly. In other words we wanted to test whether a student placed in a lower level course (i.e., pre-algebra) compared to a “similar” student placed in the following course in the sequence (i.e., elementary algebra) benefitted from taking an additional developmental course, by being at least as likely to pass the following course (i.e., elementary algebra) as the student who was placed in the higher course directly. The results of the impact evaluation suggest that overall faculty were setting the cutoffs correctly, and with the exception of the students in the higher level courses (i.e., elementary algebra compared to those placed directly in intermediate algebra), students who were placed in a lower level course (i.e., pre-algebra) compared to those who were placed in a higher level course (i.e., elementary algebra) were as likely to pass elementary algebra. We concluded that this is a nuanced story and student success varies depending on the course in which students were initially placed, the college that they attended, and the initial “penalty” in terms of passing the following course in the sequence, decreased substantially over time. In other words students were taking several years before successfully passing these courses.

The findings of this study are relevant for community college faculty, researchers, and policy makers, as they explore the more effective ways to assess and place students in the courses where they would be more likely to succeed and complete their desired educational outcome.