More local college students have been identified as needing in-depth academic help as a result of a new college placement exam rolled out statewide.
The new Texas Success Initiative assessment, or TSI, was instituted at public colleges and universities in the fall as a uniform exam to gauge incoming students’ preparedness for college.
Local college officials say the new test is more rigorous than its predecessors and that students take more time to complete the exam. But they are hopeful that the TSI will better identify students who need further academic development and guide schools in recommending certain enrichment options, such as basic education courses or seminars.
Previously, the schools required new students who did not meet certain academic markers — such as minimum college readiness scores on SAT or ACT exams or graduating with above-average GPAs — to take one of several different placement exams to determine if they could enroll in regular college courses or first needed to take additional developmental classes.
Students at both McLennan Community College and Texas State Technical College typically took the Accuplacer exam.
Now with the rollout of the TSI exam, students may be directed to take adult basic education courses, which indicate that an individual has only an eighth grade-level competency, before they can enroll in developmental classes and later take the courses they need to earn college degrees.
“Students aren’t going to fall through the cracks if they do place into that (basic education) category, we’re going to have options for them to make sure that they can get through their developmental learning process as quickly as possible,” said Fred Hills, dean of arts and sciences at MCC.
“We are still looking at the scores, and it’s only been out since August of last year, so we’re still trying to figure out how that lines up with some of the previous assessments . . . and trying to figure out what best meets the students’ needs.”
At MCC, 21 percent of the 431 students who took the math portion of the TSI test between August and mid-January tested at the adult basic education level, while another 64 percent scored at the developmental education range.
On the reading section, 6 percent of the 472 testers needed adult basic education and 47 percent needed developmental classes. On the writing portion, 12 percent of the 441 test takers had to take basic adult classes and 42 percent needed developmental classes.
In comparison to the MCC students who took the Accuplacer exam during the same period of time during the fall 2012 semester, developmental courses were needed for 81 percent of the 561 math testers, 61 percent of the 572 reading test takers and 73 percent of 523 students who took the writing exam.
TSTC did not provide statistics for its students who have taken the TSI assessment by the Tribune-Herald’s deadline Friday.
Baylor University, which is private, is not required to administer the TSI.
But the university considers factors like SAT and ACT scores, high school transcripts, and a high school counselor’s statement on the student’s academic work in determining college readiness, according to an email from university spokeswoman Lori Fogleman.
Some changes stemming from the TSI may be favorable to students. For example, students who enroll in a workforce certificate program that requires less than 43 credit hours are exempt from taking the TSI.
“From the student’s perspective, if I want to enroll in a certificate program that requires say, 29 hours or less, why should I have to spend an additional 15 to 20 hours taking developmental classes?” said Pamelia Hunter, director of TSTC’s Center for Assessment. “All they want is the certificate, they want the skills and they want to go to work.”
Also, colleges will have the ability to look at a student’s academic experience in addition to the TSI scores before deciding whether he or she will need basic education or development courses. Hunter said students may have the option of taking a two-week seminar in a given subject instead of enrolling in basic education classes to move forward toward a degree.
One major drawback of the TSI is that it now takes students longer to take the exam. The test is administered by computer and is untimed.
MCC students finished the Accuplacer test within two hours on average, said testing coordinator Michelle Johnson. But now students typically take three to four hours to finish the TSI, and a handful have taken as long as 11 hours.
Hunter said TSTC students take four hours on average and as long as six hours to finish the TSI, compared to three hours for the Accuplacer.
The difference is the TSI includes diagnostic questions to pinpoint students’ specific weaknesses in each subject.
If a student does not score college readiness levels on the original 20 questions for each section, the exam directs him or her to take another 40 unscored, diagnostic questions that would measure the student’s competency and identify what skills need to be developed.
But Hunter said that can pose some problems in securing the test environment.
“Students when testing, after four or five hours, they may say they have to have a break to eat or use the restroom, and we let them go,” Hunter said. “But when you’re talking about maintaining test security, the question becomes what else do they bring back in with them or what do they have in their head that they’re trying to figure out?”
In some cases, a longer testing period can cause additional stress on the students and potentially impact their performance on the assessment.
Hunter said some colleges in the state mandate that students who have not completed the TSI after four hours must go home and return the next day to finish it, but TSTC is concerned such a policy would create a hardship on students who are working or who drive from outside the county to take the exam.
Despite the adjustments, local officials hope the new test will enable schools to offer more targeted academic assistance and lower the number of students who struggle with classes for which they are not adequately prepared.
Hills pointed out that shifting students in need of greater help to adult basic education first will decrease the odds that those students will repeat developmental courses, something which could discourage them from continuing their education.
Also, adult basic education classes are currently offered free in McLennan and five surrounding counties through funding from the Texas Workforce Commission, meaning those students wouldn’t incur tuition costs while working toward being able to enroll in developmental or regular college courses.
The TSI exam is one of several initiatives the state is developing to make sure high school students enter college prepared for the greater demands of higher education. Other changes being pioneered include integrating developmental reading and writing courses into one class and customizing the math requirements students take based on the degree they seek.
“If we can get a student to complete a sequence of courses that they need without having to take a course over and over again or take more than what they need, then they can get through the process quickly and more successfully and more cheaply,” Hills said.
“That’s our goal, and we’re doing everything we can to make that happen.