Pierce upgrades to a new form of placement tests

Pierce College’s Guided Self-Placement (GSP) tests equalize opportunity for students.

Pierce College is moving toward a form of placement testing that institutions throughout the nation have begun implementing.

Instead of students being tested into a certain level of English or math, they’re going to be completing Guided Self Placements (GSP).

These placements are formatted like reflections the student makes about themselves. Upon completion, they’re given recommendations based on their current comfort levels and abilities. The student will then work closely with their adviser to register for the proper course.

“It’ll (GSP) help students have a sense of what would be their best placement point as opposed to having placement imposed upon them,” said Christine McMullin, Pierce College Puyallup director of advising and entry services. “They [students], along with their adviser, can figure out where to place them best.”

McMullin highlighted the previous methods of placement testing and explained that they didn’t necessarily indicate whether or not a student would be successful in a certain field. The better indicators, she said, were aspects like long-term commitment, work ethics and how invested and prepared students were for the expectations that’ll be placed on them.

“We recognize through the hard work of [the] English and math [departments] that providing students an agency in making those choices is much better than having placement done to a student,” said McMullin.

GSP will take the forms of separate questionnaires provided to students, as both the English and math departments have been responsible for developing their own set of reflective surveys that will be delivered as web-based links. English has been developing their version with the information technology department of Pierce, while math’s GSP will be delivered through Washington Mathematics Assessment and Placement, making it more familiar and accessible to students.

McMullin explained that, while students are always invited to utilize the testing centers, they’ll be able to complete GSP at home and at their own pace, though it must be completed in one session.

“Because this [GSP] is a reflective process, that’s partially why it’s totally fine for a student to take it in the comfort of their own home and not in a cramped testing center,” said McMullin.

Pierce is nearly ready to launch the system and will be reaching out to applicants for summer and fall quarters with additional information on how students can complete it. For now, students will be sent a link to the surveys until they become accessible via Pierce’s website. 

Once the questionnaires are finished, the next step is for students to meet with their advisers. If their confidence level is low in a subject, they’re most likely going to be recommended for a co-requisite class.

“We want to encourage and support as many students as possible to move into college level with the added support, if they need it,” said McMullin. “Our goal is not to hold students back.”


Guided Self Placement for math

Math GSP will focus on students’ familiarity with various topics.

The results for completion of the math portion are recorded as a placement test simply as a way of recording the information so Pierce’s system will know if a student is eligible for a class or not. They’re then passed on to the student and their adviser for discernment.

Math Instructor David Lippman, designer of the math questionnaire, explained that the math side of placement will now be providing students recommendations based on their self-reported data, much like the background a transcript would provide, though students will still have the option to bring in their high school transcripts.

Students won’t be completing GSP by solving equations but by answering with their level of confidence and familiarity.

“Instead of making students take a placement test, we’ll ask questions like what math classes have you had and what do you expect to take here,” said Math Instructor Pete Kaslik. “There’ll be a list of problems based upon what they are planning on taking. And they don’t have to answer them, they just have to say, ‘no I’ve never seen this’ or ‘I could do this no sweat’.”

Lippman and Kaslik agreed with McMullin in her distrust toward the previous placement testing. For them, placing a student into a course limited the student and produced less favorable results than if the student was put in a course based on aspects like experience and confidence.

The questionnaire consists of six sections. The first half consists of demographic information and details about desired programs which allow for a more accurate recommendation to be given at the end. The remainder of the survey asks about high school experience, any college experience and, finally, confidence levels when faced with exampled equations. Once complete, the student is given a choice of recommendations that they’ll then work through with their adviser.

With the support of additional faculty, Lippman designed the questionnaire and also explained that there were a number of reasons a math problem could be solved incorrectly. Because of this, he felt more confident about the accuracy of the GSP than the previous testing procedures.

He went on and explained that one of the biggest problems of placement tests was students getting placed lower than where they actually belonged.

“Depending upon the specific questions that they get, someone who probably would have been fine in a college level class would end up getting placed in a pre-algebra class because they couldn’t do fractions and we just don’t want that happening,” said Lippman.

Another challenge they ran into was high school transcripts. Even if students were eligible to bring in high school transcripts, Lippman explained, they were usually still taking the test at Pierce and getting placed lower than they belonged just because they couldn’t figure out how to get their hands on their transcripts.

Redesigning placement testing has been closely connected with the introduction of corequisites classes. These classes allow students to receive college credit while still receiving the pre-college level support they might need. Lippman said that, while redesigning the placement testing has long been discussed, it’s when Pierce initiated corequisites that they really got started in designing the GSP.

“The thing I’m most excited about is that we’re removing that sort of high-stakes testing nature of the old placement tests,” said Lippman. “I mean, it really sucked that based on this one placement test you could end up having to take two or three additional classes to get through your college level math.”

Lippman explained that GSP gives students some agency and ability to guide their own college process. He also encouraged students to be familiar with their desired program and what it requires. For the section of the questionnaire regarding previous experience, examples are offered with each course title, for students who might not remember what something like algebra looked like but know they’ve successfully completed it.

“Instead of thinking of this as some static, final destination, we’ll keep reviewing and updating it on a regular basis. The first version is never the end,” said Kaslik.


Guided Self Placement for English

English GSP is closely related to co-requisite classes

The English side of GSP, originally called Directed Self-Placement, has been in the works for a number of years as well. English Professor Alison Walker Stromdahl has been heavily involved with the development of this new placement and explained that it’s now referred to as GSP because the word guided more accurately portrayed the whole process. To her, the student is being guided instead of directed.

Stromdahl partnered with the writing department director when she first became a faculty member of Pierce and has helped develop the placement into what it is now. She, along with other departments, have been working with the IT and advising departments, so that all involved understand what the process of GSP looks like and can better guide students.

“It not only looks at the cognitive but the non-cognitive things that impact a student and their success in a course,” said Stromdahl.

She reiterated McMullin’s belief that standardized testing didn’t show completely accurate results. She also shared Lippman and Kaslik’s notion that the biggest concern with placement testing was if a student was under-placed, as opposed to over-placed in a course. Students being misplaced could not only affect their college experience but also their personal lives and emotional or mental health.

“I think, for me, what is frustrating as an instructor is when a student enters the classroom and feels like they have been misplaced by a test and they feel like they have no agency or say in that placement,” said Stromdahl.

Similar to the math aspect, GSP for English has been closely related to co-requisite classes. She, however, said there are more layers to it than the math GSP, and described it as being more robust and reflective.

Students will enter GSP and be greeted by the description of what the placement is itself, the process and reasoning behind it and how students should approach it. They’re then asked to identify any numbers that are historically associated with their placements, like high school GPAs, previous placement test results or grades.

The next step is for the student to go through reading samples from different course levels and then rhetorically analyze those samples in as many or as little paragraphs as they’re comfortable with. They then move onto the survey aspect which consists of 18 questions decided on by English Language Arts faculty.

Stromdahl explained that no two GSPs are alike, the reason for this is that it’s mostly based on the demographics of the students, thus making it unique to each school. The survey covers cognitive and non-cognitive elements, like reading and writing strategies, habits, past experience, time commitments, obligations or confidence levels.

Students receive a raw score with every question they answer so they can get a feel for where the recommendations are heading. In the end, they’re given a final recommendation with a description of the suggested course, as well as some of the rationale behind the suggestion.

“Part of this process does rely on the student to sift through that feedback, not alone, but with an adviser,” said Stromdahl.

The GSP for English began piloting last summer but has grown in availability and design since then. Like the math GSP, English is self-paced so students can be as thorough as they want. Stromdahl added that English is also hoping to eventually include basic timelines of major projects and some assignment samples so students can see what they would be getting into with certain levels.

GSP will continue to change and adapt for the needs of Pierce’s students, but McMullin, Kaslik, Lippman and Stromdahl all agreed that giving students an agency to speak for themselves is shown to produce a better outcome than if students had placement imposed on them.

“What I really enjoy about this process is its transparency and it’s not an oversimplification,” said Stromdahl. “It [GSP] lets students take control of their placement but also offers that level of guidance for students who need it. My wish for every student is that they are in a class that feels right for them, their goals, wants and needs and I think that [GSP] does it.” 

The Puyallup Post is the award-winning news media of Pierce College Puyallup in Puyallup, Washington. Copyright The Puyallup Post 2018. Find us on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Youtube @thepuyalluppost

Kathryn Scott

Pierce upgrades to a new form of placement tests

by Kathryn Scott time to read: 8 min