Increasing Student Success with In-Class Placement Testing

Donald K. Jarvis, Brigham Young University

A key element of student success in any given class is readiness, mastery of expected prerequisites for that class. Capable and diligent students may experience catastrophic failure in intermediate and advanced classes of any given curricular sequence if they are seriously deficient in any aspect of preparation for that class. This is an especially serious problem where students are entering any class other than the beginning one in a university sequence such as a Russian program having had some non-university background such as in high school, or study or residence abroad.

The thesis of this paper is that students will be more likely to succeed in any given class if the teacher administers a placement test at the first of the term, especially in intermediate classes known as entry points for those transferring from other institutions or returning from residence or study abroad. Such a placement test should be used not to exclude students who score poorly, but to advise them as to how many hours per week they will have to prepare out of class in order to earn a given grade. Students scoring low appreciate the advice and readily accept it: they either prepare to spend the necessary time for the class, transfer into preparatory classes, or switch to an audit or other preparation before taking the class for credit. Such in-class placement testing may help Russian programs retain students, always an important goal, but especially crucial during the present enrollment crisis.

Standard ACTFL oral proficiency testing usually requires too much time and in any case may not be sufficiently focused on the skills needed for a given intermediate or advanced course if the course emphasizes anything other than oral proficiency. A search of the available Russian placement or proficiency tests reveals that they are all too time-consuming, too expensive, or too elementary to be practical for the intermediate college level and above.

In-class placement testing has several advantages over more general placement testing, which is designed to place students into any of several classes. In-class placement tests: 1. need not be standardized, expensive instruments, but can be devised by the teacher; 2. can be focused on the material of the class syllabus, thereby allowing a relatively short test with good face validity; 3. can be administered over several years and correlated each time with final grades and preparation hours, thereby assessing their predictive power; 4. can be administered to all students registered for the class without involving separate rooms, computers, or scheduling of students; 5. allows the teacher to provide immediate counseling for those scoring low, in many cases saving students a wasted semester and the devastation of a failing or low grade.

Such an in-class placement test of multiple-choice items was administered to two large third-year university-level Russian culture classes on the first day of class. Many of those registered had lived abroad, some had studied abroad, some had simply come through the local university Russian program. Since the main skill needed to succeed in the class was reading, the test was a reading test, based on the textbook that students would be reading during the term. The first version required fifteen minutes to take and the second twenty-five minutes. Both were machine-scored during the class period. After taking the test, several students with low scores decided immediately to postpone taking the class for credit. Student placement scores of the remaining students were correlated with number of hours of preparation and final class grades and revealed modest validity for the shorter placement test, better validity for the longer one.