English Assessment Raises Placement Questions

Michael Konigsberg
El Vaquero Staff Writer

With the beginning of each semester both teachers and students in English classes face the struggle of adjusting to improperly placed students.

Some students fault the English placement examination for not accurately gauging proficiencies.

Sue Brinkmeyer, Title V director at GCC, explained that the test administered at this school has been selected because it’s “computer-adaptive” design complements the rest of the placement process in the English sequence at GCC.

Questions in language mechanics and comprehension begin at a basic level and become increasingly difficult with each correct answer; this method is thought to be effective in sorting out students according to English proficiency. But it doesn’t always work out that way.

A student who asked not to be named, said of her experience with the English placement test: “It’s really easy . very basic . anything that someone from the ninth grade to the 11th should know. … When it came to the essay test, it was ridiculously easy. However, a lot of students who tested into my English 101 were unprepared.” It was her opinion that the test for placement in 101, “should be the test to get into [English] 120. There should be a higher test to get you into 101. It shouldn’t be that easy.”

In her English 101 class she said the professor attempted to bring the struggling students up to speed, but consequently lowered the standards for the whole class.

English professor Glenn Dwiggins said the division is talking about beefing up the writing requirement on the placement test.

Student writing problems are addressed in English 120 to prepare them for 101, said Dwiggins. Yet, he said, many students repeat 120 before moving ahead. He said that many students are not placed in the level of English suited to them, and those students always have trouble in class.

Some struggles are rooted in a language barrier. A placement test evidently cannot always indicate that a student still cannot master English as a second language.

“[These students] learn things,” said Dwiggins. “But they don’t get the [full benefit] of rigorous grammar exercises.”

Language aptitude is not always the issue. Dwiggins said a student may be under personal strain or simply may not put enough effort into the class.

Whatever the reason for low achievement in English, it is rare for a student to choose to drop a class and enroll in one at a lower level.

Most students who take the English placement test place elow the 101 level, said Mary Jane Atkins, an English professor who scores the tests.

Theoretically, all high school graduates should be prepared for English 101, but that isn’t the case. This campus has initiated a program in cooperation with the local schools to better prepare students for college English.

As director of GCC’s Bridge program, Atkins helps high school teachers plan their senior English classes. Those classes are supposed to be at the level of GCC’s English 120 and should prepare students for English 101.

As a teacher, she knows how hard a student will struggle and how much effort it takes to bring a student up to speed. And she’d rather a student repeat a class than go on to a level she or he isn’t prepared for.

English Professor Taylor said that statistics may indicate a certain rate of student success, but they may not “take into account whether [certain students] were qualified when they entered the class.” What isn'” considered, he said is the “extra time [teachers] give in help to the struggling students.”

But, despite the lack of coordination between students’ abilities and GCC’s English placement, Atkins thinks the department is getting better at directing to their appropriate levels.

Taylor helped rewrite the English 120 curriculum, which is considered more successful that than previous format. Previously, the class saw only a 50 percent pass rate and many students who did pass could not meet the demands of 101. With the new format the pass rate has increased to roughly 75 percent, he said.

The English division is also experimenting with a new 120 placement exam with an essay portion. Teachers will analyze the results as they are tabulated in the Research and Planning Office. In the end, said Brinkmeyer, the English division will hopefully have a clearer understanding of predicting student success.