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Measuring College Readiness Under ESSA: Admissions and Placement Exams

CNA conducted a literature review on college admissions and placement exams, focusing on their uses in high schools and in K-12 accountability systems. The review included a policy scan of state plans under ESSA, as well as research on college admissions and placement exams in accountability settings.

Research suggests that admissions exams show greater rigor and closer alignment with K-12 standards than do placement exams (Achieve, 2007). Several researchers questioned the predictive validity of both exam types, finding that they often led to placement errors in college courses. Some authors argued that such assessments—especially those that are nationally known—can raise awareness of postsecondary options, boost confidence in state accountability systems, and provide students with admissions data that are accepted at many colleges (Miller & Happel, 2011). Others question the suitability of readiness exams as accountability measures given the testing burden and the exams’ limited alignment both with state standards and with accountability measurement purposes (Martineau & Marion, 2015; Catchpole, 2016).

Neither policymakers nor researchers agree on whether or how to use college readiness exams to measure state accountability. In 2016, 23 states included at least one such exam (ACT, SAT, ACCUPLACER, or COMPASS) in their accountability systems.

Recommendations for K-12 educators based on the research and policy review include the following:

  • Match the exam’s purpose to its use.
  • Use multiple readiness measures.
  • Customize admissions tests when incorporating them into statewide testing systems.
  • Modify high school tests to measure college readiness.
  • Provide support for districts and schools to assist students who do not meet benchmarks.
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