Kirkwood Community College Uses Questionmark for Placement


Kirkwood Community College is the fourth largest community college in Iowa, serving about 16,000 students annually. Its main campus is in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, with 12 satellite learning centers in seven counties.

Most academic departments at Kirkwood use Questionmark, which the college has been using since 1998. The Learning Services department helps faculty to design tests, quizzes, exams, tutorials, and effective questions. Approximately 10,000 secure Questionmark tests are administered annually via Questionmark Secure at the main campus and the 12 learning centers.

The college uses a standardized placement test to assess new students' reading, writing, and mathematics skills to determine whether they should be placed in developmental or credit courses. But this testing does not address placement in discipline-specific courses where prerequisite knowledge is key to success. 

Which Biology Course?

Rich Edwards, professor of Learning Services and Questionmark Assessment Manager at Kirkwood, says that students often registered for the wrong biology class when they came to the college. They took the advanced College Biology class and failed it, or took the Basic Biology course and found it too easy.

So in the summer of 2006 Edwards' department helped a team of Biology faculty to create a placement test using Questionmark. Prerequisite knowledge in various topics, such as cell division, was organized in a topic structure in Questionmark. The team contributed questions to the online shared repository using the Word Authoring Template, browser-based authoring, or working directly in the shared repository. Existing questions in Word files were formatted for direct import into Questionmark. These question writing tools accommodated team members’ technical proficiency and personal schedules, making creation of the initial 200 test questions relatively quick and easy.

"We field tested the first version of the test with Biology students in fall 2006, eliminated nonperforming items, and then field tested again in spring and summer 2007," Edwards says. “We used the Item and Question Statistics reports to identify questions that did not meet difficulty, correlation, and discrimination criteria.” The team created two forms of the test, A and B, each with 40 questions. Students who did not obtain the cut score on Form A could attempt Form B. The two forms had to be equally difficult so that students would be placed properly regardless of which test they took. On a scale of 0 (the hardest questions) to 10 (the easiest), the questions on Form A had to be within 0.1 point on the difficulty scale compared with the questions on Form B.

Improved Success Rates

Beginning in fall 2007, students were required to take the test before they could register for a Biology course. Scores were uploaded into the student information system, and students who did not obtain the required score were blocked from registering for the advanced course. Student success rates improved dramatically in fall 2007 and spring 2008.

Better Language Placement

Learning Services is working with the Spanish department to create a similar assessment to determine the proper placement in four levels of Spanish (two beginning and two intermediate levels). “The department considered purchasing a placement test, but discovered there wasn't one that aligned with the curriculum to gain faculty satisfaction," Edwards says. "With Questionmark, we can create placement tests that align to the discipline curriculum instead of buying something off the shelf, assuming such a test exists at all."

Edwards says that these kinds of placement tests probably couldn't be created without Questionmark. "It would be really difficult, because Questionmark has so many features and tools to facilitate the whole process of developing an assessment," he says. “This is a great tool to create a placement test for any discipline."